America’s mental health has plummeted in the wake of the pandemic, with US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy classifying the nation’s levels of loneliness and isolation as a public health crisis.
However, former first lady Rosalyn Carter, who died Sunday at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96, advocated for mental health long before 2020.
Early on, Carter recognized the connection between individuals with mental health problems and those without. Growing up, the former first lady had a distant cousin who suffered from mental illness and could remember being scared by his presence, according to CNN.
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“He probably wanted nothing more than friendship and recognition, but he was different, and when I heard him, my impulse was to flee,” he wrote in his memoirs.
Reflecting on her own response helped Carter realize the need for improved care for people living with mental illness like her cousin, and she spent much of her time in the White House advocating for mental health.
She made sure her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, now 99, was held to the same standard. Carter once recounted an incident when she stood in line waiting to shake her husband’s hand at one of his rallies.
“What are you doing here?” According to an article from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Mr. Carter asked when he saw her in line.
“I came to see what you will do to help people with mental illnesses when you become governor,” he replied.
Jimmy Carter responded by telling her he would aim to have “the best program in the country” for mental health and put Rosalyn in charge, she said.
During Jimmy’s tenure as Governor of Georgia, Rosalyn was a member of the Governor’s Commission on Improving Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped.
In 1977, she and her husband, who was then president of the United States, created the Presidential Commission on Mental Health. However, Rosalyn was unable to chair the committee because she received a letter from the Department of Justice that a close relative of the president was not allowed to be appointed to the position, CNN reported.
“However, there is no problem for you to be appointed honorary president,” he told the press. “So I’m going to be a very active honorary president.”
But Carter’s work didn’t stop at PCMH. He also testified before Congress in 1979 to advocate for improved mental health care. she was the second first lady to testify before Congress, following Eleanor Roosevelt.
During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he and Rosalyn created 123 community mental health centers, he told the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in an interview.
“Now they were by no means comprehensive. Some were just an office in the middle of a small town,” he said. “But a lot of times, just on the phone to the office so someone can come through and figure out where to go for help.”
The couple also founded The Carter Center, a nonprofit dedicated to improving lives, in 1982, just a year after Carter’s presidency ended. The organization has its mental health program, which aims to “bring health leaders and organizations together to discuss important public policy issues related to mental health and substance use care systems at the national and state levels,” according to The Carter Center’s website.
“Twenty-five years ago, we never dreamed that people would one day actually be able to recover from mental illness,” Rosalyn Carter said at a mental health symposium back in 2003.
“Today it is a very real possibility.”
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