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Shaping Mental Health Policy: Rosalynn Carter’s Lasting Legacy

Many people will remember Rosalynn Carter as the “steel magnolia who served tirelessly alongside her husband, Former President Jimmy Carter. Her beginning as First Lady was in the state of Georgia where her husband served as governor from 1971 to 1975. She then served as the First Lady of the United States of America from 1977 to 1981.

Mrs. Carter supported a great many important issues before, during, and after her time in the White House. Her advocacy for the care and treatment of those challenged by mental health issues may be what has made the most impactful change to mental health care in our country.

Perhaps Mrs. Carter was drawn to the issue due to her husband’s cousin, Tommy. Their visits with him in the Georgia Central State Hospital left a lasting impression on her. According to STAT, the deplorable conditions in which the patients at this facility survived and the dehumanizing way they were treated by many people was something she spent the rest of her life working to change.

One of the first orders of business for Rosalynn Carter in President Carter’s White House was as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. She spearheaded the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. The act was intended to be a necessary safety net for those individuals who were unable to obtain mental health services without local facilities available to them. This was accomplished through grants provided to community health centers.

Though much of the law was ultimately repealed, at the time it was passed, it brought the mental health crisis and the lack of needed resources to the public’s attention.

Leaving the White House in 1981 did not end her endeavors to help those suffering with mental illnesses. She and her husband worked together to create the Carter Center.

One of the programs Mrs. Carter established through the center was the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. She chaired the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force using her position, along with that of other health leaders, to affect public policy. These influential people worked together to remove the stigma attached to having a mental illness as well as how those suffering have been discriminated against. They made many strides in improving the care for mental illness that is available today.

In her advocacy for mental health care, Mrs. Carter saw firsthand the toll that mental illness took, not just on the person living with it, but on those who loved and cared for them. This was the catalyst for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.

The program began at Georgia Southwestern State University, serving caregivers in her home state. It has expanded to now include all caregivers, numbering over 40 million, throughout the United States. It continues to not only directly serve the caregivers but to increase awareness of their needs, affecting both public and social policy for the better.

Many people may not know that Mrs. Carter was an author. She wrote five books throughout her career. Those books included Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers (with Susan K. Golant), Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family Friends and Caregivers (with Susan K. Golant), And Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis (with Susan K. Golant and Kathryn E. Cade). Her books will hopefully continue to help many in the years to come receive the care that is needed and deserved, as well as change how society sees and treats those being challenged by mental health issues.

Rosalynn Carter’s compassion, dedication, and resilience has served many through her years of advocacy for better mental health care and treatment. Let us honor her memory by continuing her work to create lasting change that serves us all.

For more information on the life and work of Rosalynn Carter, as well as what you can do to help continue the work to create beneficial change for mental health care, click on The Carter Center.

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