February 22, 2012

"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 work as the Active Honorary Chair of the first President's Commission on Mental Health, which began on February 17, 1977. The commission prepared recommendations in a final report, suggesting that a 1963 act be overhauled to strengthen community center services, erase state-federal overlaps and create changes to health insurance coverage, public housing, Medicaid, Medicare and state support for those with the most chronic mental illness. There was also an advocacy recommendation for a bill of rights protecting individuals living with mental illness from discrimination. Administrative orders and public policy, most notably the Mental Health Systems Act, were landmark legislations that helped protect individuals living with mental illness.
  • Mrs. Carter also initiated increases in federal grants to the National Institute of Mental Health to continue research which often lagged.
  • Upon leaving the White House, Mrs. Carter remained active in these issues and policies through The Carter Center in Atlanta, a private, nonprofit institution founded by her husband and herself in 1982.
  • Mrs. Carter created and chairs The Carter Center's Mental Health Task Force, an advisory body of experts, individuals and advocates promoting positive change in the mental health field. She hosts an annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy to address today’s most pressing issues.
  • In 1996, she initiated the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to address the stigma associated with mental illness.
  • Along with Susan Golant—her latest was also coauthored by Kathryn Cade—she wrote three significant books addressing mental illness issues: Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis (2010), Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers (1994) and Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers (1998).

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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