"We have to get the word out that mental illnesses can be diagnosed and treated, and almost everyone suffering from mental illness can live more normal lives."
– Rosalynn Carter
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet briefly with former first lady Rosalynn Carter in Atlanta after she filmed a public service announcement in support of NAMI Georgia’s Opening Doors to Recovery initiative. “Please help … build a circle of support in your community and put self-directed recovery within our reach,” Mrs. Carter asked.
Gracious, genuine, committed—as I watched her speak these were some of the words that came to mind. I reflected on this amazing woman and her role in changing our global understanding of mental illness.
Mrs. Carter was the first wife of a presidential candidate to declare a campaign promise of her own. Her promise? As first lady, she would assume the responsibility for guiding legislative reform on behalf of the nation’s individuals living with mental illness.
Expanding on efforts she initiated as first lady of Georgia, this is exactly what she did after her husband was elected President in 1976. This is remarkable on its own, but to put this in perspective, to say that America’s awareness of mental illness was very much in the dark in the 70s is an understatement; treatment options were in most cases nonexistent and mothers were blamed for their children’s mental illness. To further demonstrate the reality of this era, NAMI was not founded until 1979, three years after Carter’s inauguration.
A true pioneer, Mrs. Carter’s compassion and dedication on behalf of individuals and families affected by mental illness has not wavered in the more than 35 years since. Even a partial list of her accomplishments in this arena is eye-opening:
Her drive to aid individuals living with mental illness all began during a 1966 encounter early one morning while campaigning for her husband’s bid to become governor of Georgia. Mrs. Carter came upon a stooped and weary woman heading home to care for a daughter with mental illness. She was so moved by her love and dedication that she launched a personal crusade that continues today.
From the world stage to a corner of her home state, last week, more than 45 years later, she reminds us that we have a lifetime champion who will embrace all efforts, large and small, in support of improving our lives, our families and our communities.
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