‘Empire’ star Taraji P. Henson hailed for mental health work

“Empire” star Taraji P. Henson has enjoyed wealth, celebrity, a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination. But behind the scenes, she’s battled anxiety and depression.

On Thursday, the 50-year-old actress and filmmaker — who has spoken publicly and powerfully about her private struggles — was honored by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation for her work to end the stigma around mental illness.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Henson, the latest recipient of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, told The Associated Press via email. “Tell someone. Your vulnerability is actually your strength.”

Henson was nominated for an Oscar for 2008′s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” She also won critical acclaim for 2016′s “Hidden Figures,” about three African American mathematicians at NASA who played a key role in the early days of the U.S. space program, and won a 2016 Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyon in television’s “Empire” series.

In 2018, the Washington, D.C., native started the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to stop those with mental illness from being stigmatized — especially Blacks, who she says are less likely to seek treatment.

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic complicating people’s mental health struggles, Henson’s foundation has been helping African Americans — who’ve been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — access free online therapy.

Henson named the foundation for her father, a military veteran whom she said “returned broken” from his service in Vietnam. The organization, she said, is “committed to offering support to African Americans who face trauma daily simply because they are Black.”

Henson also is among several actors participating in a series of virtual panels about inclusion and equity in Hollywood hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that puts on the Oscars.

The Ruderman Family Foundation works for more inclusion and opportunities for the disabled. Previous recipients of its award include filmmaker brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, a driving force behind the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“When role models and influencers like Taraji are so vocal about their own experiences with mental illness, it has the potential to inspire millions of people to accept their own mental health issues and find healthy ways to address them,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the group.

“But it hasn’t just been words with Taraji. She took action,” he said. “We need more people like Taraji to continue to eliminate the stigma around mental health across all our communities in America.”