Rosalyn Carter’s mental health advocacy was based on compassion and perseverance

The sun was shining in June 1979 as Rosalyn Carter made her way through a cheering crowd in Laconia, New Hampshire.

— He shook my hand. shouted one delighted participant.

The first lady was in the state for her husband’s re-election campaign, but this was not a political rally. Instead, he was held in a sprawling 75-year-old facility for “retarded” children, which the US Department of Justice called a “classic example of warehousing.” He was joined by Gov. Hugh Gallen, a kindred spirit trying to remedy the deplorable conditions there and at the state mental institution.

“To go to a place like Laconia Public School and talk to people who are dealing with a very pressing issue, not voters, well, that doesn’t happen very often. It wasn’t then, and it certainly isn’t at all now. ” recalled Dayton Duncan, who was there as Galen’s press secretary.

“He could have just given a nice speech about what the administration expected and left it at that,” Duncan said. “But for him to go to a Laconia public school and meet the people who work there, the kids who are housed there and the parents, that was special.”

FILE – President Jimmy Carter talks with his wife, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, before signing an executive order creating the Presidential Commission on Mental Health, 1977. February 17, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Health experts say the advocacy of Rosalyn Carter, who died Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, at the age of 96, set the stage for much of the progress on mental illness in America. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)

After leaving the White House, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter launched programs that, among other things, controlled elections in at least 113 countries and nearly eliminated the Guinea worm parasite in the developing world. But the former president said the Carter Center would be successful if it did nothing more than his wife’s mental health work.

That’s according to Kathy Cade, vice president of the Atlanta-based center and a longtime assistant to Rosalyn Carter, and others who know the couple. They spoke to The Associated Press a few months before Rosalyn Carter died at age 96 on Sunday.

“I don’t think there has ever been another mental health leader who has had as much impact on mental health care and access to care and how we think about mental health and mental illness as Ms. Carter.” Cade said. “And I think that has to do with his incredible concern for the issue and his tenacity over 50 years.”

What turned into a lifelong crusade began during Carter’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign in Georgia. Rosalind was approached almost daily by constituents worried about their loved ones in an overcrowded psychiatric hospital. Early one morning, she spoke to a tired cotton mill worker who explained that she and her husband were working back-to-back shifts to care for their mentally ill daughter.

“The image of a woman haunted me all day,” Rosalyn Carter wrote in her 2010 book Within Our Reach. Ending the Mental Health Crisis. That night, she went to her husband’s campaign rally and stood in line to shake his hand.

“I came to see what you will do to help mentally ill people when you are governor,” he said to the surprised candidate.

Jimmy Carter responded by creating a state commission to improve services for the mentally ill. Later, as chairman, he created the National Commission on Mental Health, which led to the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, a major federal policy reform that sought to treat people with mental illness in their communities.

Rosalyn Carter was the honorary co-chair of that commission and the driving force behind the legislation, traveling across the country to hear from experts and ordinary citizens and share her findings with Congress. Although it was effectively repealed during the Reagan administration, advocates say it set the stage for much of the progress since then.

At The Carter Center, he created a program in 1991 devoted exclusively to mental health and eventually established fellowships for journalists covering the subject. Years later, he lobbied Congress to create a landmark law requiring insurers to provide parity in mental health coverage.

Those who have worked with her over the decades say that Carter’s accomplishments were based on her empathy and listening skills.

“His strength comes from his heart,” said Cynthia Wainscott, former board chair of the national nonprofit Mental Health America. “He’s very, very, very kind and he listens to people. When you’re talking to him, there might be three conversations around you, but you know he’s got a crush on you, and he’s listening to you.”

He was also an effective and inspiring mobilizer with sharp instincts, Wainscott said.

In preparation for an annual mental health symposium, Carter once suggested contacting a pollster to clarify the key message that 20% of Americans will experience a mental disorder in any given year. The survey conducted focus groups and found that people do not believe the statistic, but if it is attributed to one in five Americans, they do.

“When you hear 20%, you have to imagine 100 people, 20 of whom are sick, and it’s complicated and impersonal. If you say one in five, people are thinking about their workplace, their school, their neighborhood,” said Wainscott, who. also headed the National Mental Health Association of Georgia.

“If he hadn’t been in that room, none of us would have thought to ask the pollster to tell us how to word it,” he said. “It was brilliant.”

Journalist Bill Lichtenstein considered Rosalyn Carter “the patron saint of anyone dealing with mental health or behavioral issues.”

Lichtenstein, who runs a media production company in Boston, was an investigative reporter for ABC News when he suffered from manic depression in 1986. She went on to produce award-winning programs on recovery from mental illness, but she still remembers being shunned when she revealed her own struggles; He said Carter’s desire to reduce such stigma is at the heart of his accomplishments.

“At the end of the day, whether it’s more money for research or getting people with a mental health history to be on an equal footing when it comes to employment or housing, that’s the most insidious, difficult barrier to anything. it’s a stigma,” he said.

Lichtenstein serves on the board of advisors for The Carter Center’s Mental Health Journalism Fellowship Program, which has supported more than 220 journalists from the United States and six other countries over the years.

Marion Sher, a freelance journalist and author in South Africa, was awarded the fellowship in 2005. His first article was titled “When is it more than just a bad day?” published in Men’s Health magazine along with a phone number for a mental health organization. The backlash in a country where stigma remains strong has been massive, he said.

“The phone rang for three weeks,” he said. “They’ve had to bring in extra consultants to man the phones.”

Cher now offers mental health journalism scholarships in South Africa using local sponsorships. Such a multiplier effect shows the impact of the Carter Center’s scholarships, and it wouldn’t have happened without her persistence, Cade said.

Carter was a “woman of action”. Not content with just gathering experts for discussions, he thought of ways to change policy by changing attitudes, Cade said, recalling sitting down with his advisers and saying, “What can we do? can we do this?’

Associated Press reporter Holly Ramer has received a 2017-18 Rosalyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
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