If you ask Viola Davis, there’s nothing wrong with being a beautiful mess. “I own my story,” she says firmly. Her smile is confident and her gaze is unbroken. “I own my failures. I’m not interested in being perfect. I don’t put on a mask.”
Davis is addressing the preservation of her own mental wellness while being in a heightened position to have it easily stripped away due to stress (Davis is not only an accomplished actress, but also a wife and mother to a five-year-old daughter).
In fact, it’s the whole reason she took a break from her L.A. digs to return to the familiar cool of Central Falls, Rhode Island. She partnered with The Vaseline Healing Project to spread the message of health and wellness in her own hometown with a one-day health fair (Oct. 8), providing the community with skin screenings, medical counsel, dental care, flu shots and screenings for blood pressure and glucose levels.
While just a small gesture, the impact of such a health clinic is grand. According to Community Health Assessment Data by the State of Rhode Island Department of Health, roughly one in three people complain about “fair to poor” health, but that’s not just limited to skin and what lies beneath it. Mental health and wellness is another often ignored status in the black community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that only about 25 percent of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of their white counterparts.
In Davis’ field of expertise, where movies and TV shows oftentimes reflect what’s happening in the lives it of their viewers, that nuance of the human experience—especially as it pertains to communities of color—isn’t always given a proper platform to be discussed. “No one wants to talk about failure. Everybody wants a happy story,” Davis says on the lack of Hollywood productions that cover mental wellness in practical, everyday ways.
On this season of How To Get Away With Murder, we see how stress is slowly unwinding Davis’ character Annalise Keating, because all throughout the prior seasons, she’d held it together as the “strong black woman” for everyone around her. This, Davis says, is the very problem. Hiding struggles under an “I’m fine” facade can lead to emotional deterioration.
“Number one, we have to redefine what ‘strong’ means,” she says. “Strong does not mean not admitting when you’re vulnerable. Strong does not mean talking about and owning up to your shortcomings.” Instead, being open about those things is the best form of self-care, at least for Davis. That, and surrounding herself with people who love her at her lowest and that she’s comfortable sharing the contents of her mind with.
“I think that the effort to put on the mask is probably more detrimental than just being able to step up, admit your vulnerabilities in front of people who have enough empathy for you,” she says.
Watch Davis shed more light on Vaseline’s health initiative, how we can normalize seeking help for mental illness and her hope for humanity in 2017.
Video by Jason Chandler