The once and forever Dynasty of our time, Fox’s Empire has, with mixed results, explored mental illness since its inception—first with Andre Lyon’s bipolar diagnosis and then with Lucious Lyon’s mother’s psychosis. In the sixth and smartly written final season, Cookie Lyon, matriarch, fashion maven and all-around bad mama jamma, begins her own attempt at therapy to deal with the myriad traumas she can no longer ignore.
This season, Cookie can’t sleep, and when her agent recommends that she see Dr. Paula Wick, a black therapist (Keesha Sharp), she reluctantly agrees. Ms. Lyon has met her match in Dr. Wick (in one scene, Cookie tries to get cute, saying she’s “just fine” and Wick retorts: “Is that why you have those Birkin bags under your eyes?”); in subsequent visits they begin to get to the heart of some of Cookie’s deepest whys: Why she seems stuck in the same patterns; why she is so loyal to a man like Luscious; why she gives so much of herself to him.
Taraji P. Henson, around-the-way-girl extraordinaire, has embodied Cookie Lyon for six seasons and has been a staunch advocate of meaningful mental health solutions in the black community. She says it was the producers and writers who approached her about Cookie’s therapy storyline and said it’s been a long time coming for the iconic character.
“Cookie needed therapy when she first got out of prison, and so it’s finally catching up to her,” Henson told The Root. “I think it was absolutely important to show this woman who everybody deems so strong and who can do everything and who is always there for everybody—we need to show that she needs help, too. I like that we’re busting that myth of the strong black woman, with her sitting down on the sofa.”
The Academy-Award nominated actress, who has been open about her own mental health struggles, says that some of Cookie’s issues actually mirror her own.
“I just want to tell the truth,” says Henson. “This woman needs to seek help. She can’t sleep, things are bothering her. Sounds like me in real life.” Henson said it was anxiety and sleeplessness that drove her to seek therapy to “quiet the noise.”
“I have racing thoughts and my brain is very active, and it’s always thinking, thinking,” Henson says. “I have this hour where I just wake up out of my sleep and I just start thinking about everything; the worst things that can happen in the world. I take on everything, that’s why I can’t watch the news, because I absorb it, and I can’t let it go. And it seeps into my life, and it’s in my subconscious, it’s in my dreams.”
On Empire, Cookie’s therapist is a queer black woman with enough clapback to earn Cookie’s respect and trust, which is the foundation of any successful therapy relationship. I asked Henson why it was important to show a black therapist in prime time.
“I think it will make children aspire to be one,” she begins. “I think it will start conversations. People who know my story and they love me, and they love me through Cookie, you don’t know who’s going to get up off that sofa at home and say, ‘If Cookie can do it, I can do it.’ That’s why representation is so important. As soon as we start normalizing this conversation, the sooner the conversation will be normal. That’s how you do it, you put it in shows.”
Henson recognizes that there is a longstanding link between popular culture and narrative shift. Between representation and reality.
“You make people comfortable watching it first,” she says. “You start talking about it, get the people talking about it. Then, the next thing you know, they say, ‘well, let me try this out.’”
Taking that first step is important. But Henson suggests that one of the reasons it is so difficult for many to “try out” therapy (and why her nonprofit, the Boris L. Henson Foundation, has set up a fund for folks to do just that), is that even admitting mental distress has been long maligned in our community as foreign, “airing dirty laundry,” or just being labeled “crazy.”
“Just the stigma,” Henson says. “That means something’s wrong with you. It’s a bad thing...It means I’m crazy, I’m psycho, I’m not strong, I’m weak. So then we have to walk around with chips on our shoulders and be strong and mean and ready to whup a ass real quick all the time, and it’s like, talk to someone. You can’t be strong all the time, stop it with the bravado. Stop it.”
Beyond taking that first step, finding what Henson calls a “culturally competent” mental health professional is another barrier to getting help. One of the touchpoints of Henson’s Boris L. Henson Foundation—founded in 2018 in honor of her late father, a Vietnam veteran who struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues—is to support African American mental health professionals, through training and scholarships for black students studying mental health.
The actress says that she wants to make it easy for folks to find therapists and has set up a resource page on the BLH website where you can find someone in your area who “understands the black experience.”
“A culturally competent provider is someone who understands the traumas that black people have been going through and are still going through,” explains Henson, noting that you don’t necessarily have to be black to have cultural competency, but you do need to understand how racism and trauma undergird a large part in black mental illness and anguish.
African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than white people, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among African Americans ages 15 to 24, according to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Racism in America, often unspoken but deeply felt, is a stressor for African Americans and always has been. The science is finally catching up with what we have long known; that racism is killing us—body and soul; instead of being retraumatized in therapy, African Americans need someone who understands both those microaggressions and blatant traumas that chip away at us daily.
“It took me a long time to find my therapist,” Henson continues. “And that’s the trick. Once you find somebody, I think the fear is, first of all, it’s going to be somebody white, so you’re not going to feel comfortable talking about what’s bothering you. Because nine times out of 10, it’s the pressures of being a black person that’s bugging you. So you can’t feel comfortable talking to someone across from you, first of all, if they don’t look like you, second of all, if you don’t speak the same language. [They] start throwing a bunch of exercises at you to do, that’s not going to translate to me. Fuck that exercise. Did you hear me? I woke up this morning because I’m afraid my son ain’t gonna make it home. Can you identify with that?”
Henson says that continued therapy has given her insight into fears and phobias that she has wrestled with for a long time (before they could be identified with clinical names) and that this self-awareness is what keeps her grounded. She also says that staying with therapy–even when you’re not depressed or anxious–is the key to true healing.
“You don’t go only when you’re feeling bad. You’re not giving yourself time to work on “the things.” The stuff that makes you tick. If you’re just going every time you have a crisis, you’re only working on that crisis. What happens to prevent those crises from happening? That’s why you have to go and keep going and keep going and keep going.
“The more I go the more we uncover and the more I go, a ha! That’s why I do that,” she adds.
Henson says she is heartened by what she sees as a tipping point in our community around discussing and being forthright about mental health; perhaps because it is seeping into popular culture, perhaps it is out of distress—since the early 1990s, the rates of suicide have nearly doubled for African American children, according to a 2015 paper in JAMA Pediatrics—something Henson has testified on Capitol Hill about.
Regardless of the reason, Henson says she “absolutely” sees the sea change, especially on social media.
“Whenever I post [about mental health], it’s funny, I don’t get a lot of likes on those posts, but I look at the comments and people are having really intelligent dialogue,” she says. “And people will come on and if they say something sideways about mental health, they get checked, too.”
Admittedly “bittersweet” about this being the last season of Empire, Henson will undoubtedly continue to work while assuredly steering the Boris Henson Foundation to greater heights around mental health advocacy and awareness.
Her inaugural Mental Health Awareness Summit, held this summer in Washington, D.C. will make a return, she promises, and she also promises that she is taking care of herself—by any means necessary.
“One day at a time, you know? When I have my bad days, I just do my exercises, I see my therapist, I meditate, I do aromatherapy or I do chakra alignment, whatever it takes to make feel good. Work out. Have a day on the sofa with my dog. Whatever it takes.”
We think Cookie would approve.
New episodes of Empire air every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. Catch up on episodes on Fox.com.