Alabama State University disrupted its regular Friday schedule to welcome award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson onto campus.
Most of the world knows Henson for the characters she plays on television and in the movies, and she selects those roles very carefully. Like music executive Cookie Lyon in “Empire,” genius mathematician Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures,” and most recently, Janine’s mom Vanetta in “Abbott Elementary,” the parts Henson tends to play are dynamic, strong women.
In her advocacy work, though, Henson wants to let people in the Black community know that they don’t always have to be strong.
“Even in what I do as an actress, I always choose roles that people will identify with because I know that through my art that can change a life,” Henson said. “But then I got to a place in my career where I played so many characters, and I just felt like it wasn’t enough. How else can I save a community that is dying right before my very eyes?”
That’s why she came to Montgomery on April 14: to advocate for mental health in the Black community and launch the She Care Wellness Pods at ASU.
The pods stationed behind the Bessie Benson Residence Hall offer free mental health resources, therapy sessions, yoga classes, space for rest and a variety of wellness workshops.
They are the product of a partnership between The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Kate Spade and ASU. While the ribbon cutting was Friday afternoon, students will officially be able to use the pods and schedule classes in them starting the week of April 17.
But before Henson addressed the crowd of hundreds gathered to celebrate her visit and the opening of the pods, she sat down for an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. Here’s what she had to say about her initiative and what led her to Alabama State.
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How the She Care Wellness Pods came to be
Henson founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 to honor her father. He fought in the Vietnam War and returned home to fight his own mental health struggles without any resources or support. The foundation’s goal is “to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the African American community.” It’s done so by building scholarship funds, creating “cultural competency” programs and more.
With the first-of-their-kind pods, Henson said there is a clear reason why they are starting with a focus on Black women:
“If you want to save a nation, if you want to save the world, it starts with the women. Women are change agents in their communities and in their families,” she said.
As for the literal decision to create the wellness spaces inside of fancified shipping containers, Henson said they were inspired by HGTV.
“My best friend who runs my foundation, Tracie Jade Jenkins, and I, we have an affinity and always have for container homes and tiny homes. We watch all the shows,” Henson said. “When you talk about mental wellness and health, you want to get to the people as soon as you can. Container homes, it’s not like building a whole structure from the ground up. It’s a faster way to get a structure built where you can handle and get to the people and reach them right away, faster.”
The stigma around mental health, especially for Black women
“Black women need to get rid of the title of ‘the strong black woman.’ I understand the black girl magic. It makes us feel empowered, but what it does is it dehumanizes us. It makes people not see us as humans, like our pain isn’t real in some way or we’re too strong,” Henson said. “Sometimes you can’t be strong. I don’t want to be strong all the time, you know? And it’s killing us trying to be strong all the time. Who can be strong 24/7?”
Disparities in mental wellness and mental health support are proven in research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations. CDC data from earlier this year showed that Black youth saw a higher increase in suicide rates than any other groups last year: a 36.6% increase.
Another CDC report showed teen girls are experiencing record levels of sadness and suicide risk in the U.S. right now. The study also found that Black students were more likely than any other studied group to attempt suicide.
“We need to meet them where they are right away because people are losing their lives, especially people of color,” Henson said to the Montgomery Advertiser. “We’re dying at a higher rate than any other demographic because of the stigma surrounded around mental health. We just don’t talk about it in the community.”
Why she chose to launch the program at ASU in Montgomery
“We do an extensive background check, and what we found was that ASU, they really care — not to say that other universities don’t — but they have a program already available for students for mental wellness,” Henson said. “We wanted to come to help support what they already have in place. It takes a community.”
The teams at Henson’s foundation and Kate Spade New York first partnered with ASU in October 2022. Over the last six months, they’ve coordinated every detail from the decorative wooden lattice outside the pods to the therapists who will be available for virtual and in-person sessions inside them.
Where She Care is going next
Henson said her team isn’t releasing the name of the HBCU campus where they’re building the next set of pods, but it is in the works.
“We partnered with Kate Spade to start the She Care Pods. Hopefully, we’ll partner with another big company to roll out the He Care pods and then the They Care Pods, so it keeps going,” Henson said. “Eventually what we want is we want these pods on every corner in every city and state because, if you think about it, you get a cut, you ingest poison, you break a leg, then you have pharmacists, you have drugstores on every corner. Well, where do you go when you’re having a mental break?”
The team behind Henson
Henson made it very clear that she is not a one-woman show, at least when it comes to her advocacy work. Kate Spade New York Foundation director Taryn Bird, ASU President Quinton Ross, and dozens of other partners were present at the ribbon-cutting on Friday.
Another key player who visited Montgomery was Tracie Jade Jenkins, executive director of The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation.
Jenkins and Henson have been best friends since the seventh grade, and growing up, they were under the impression that mental health was a commodity for people who didn’t look like them. Now, they’re working together to show others that’s not the case. The pair’s lifelong connection was a foundation for their ability to advocate for the importance of having a strong support system and acknowledging when you need help.
“I want to acknowledge all of the ancestors who have come from this place, or have given birth to this space,” Jenkins said. “It’s not something that we did. We know we’re just conduits for the healing that will happen once we’re gone.”
She became teary-eyed when thanking ASU and Kate Spade for their partnership on this initiative.
“We also appreciate every young girl who’s listening to us today out here. We got your back. You will graduate from these halls, and the world will not be kind to you, but I want you to know that what you’re able to do in this space is get ready,” Jenkins said. “Because you cannot hold a good woman down.”
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at [email protected]. To support her work, subscribe to the Advertiser or donate to Report for America.