First Lady Rosalynn Carter continues fighting for those with mental illnesses

By Maria Saporta

Persistence and compassionate dedication describe former First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s tireless efforts on mental issues in our state and nation.

Carter, who spoke Wednesday at the Atlanta Press Club luncheon at the Commerce Club, has now documented all that she has done to support the treatment of mental illnesses as well as to reduce the stigma related to mental health issues.

More importantly, in her new book — “Within our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis” — Carter presents solutions in how we as a nation can become more humane in helping people with mental illnesses.

Introducing Carter was retired CNN President Tom Johnson who went public with his own longtime struggles with depression when he left the 24-hour news operation.

It was as though Johnson and Carter were both singing from the same hymn book.

“Most mental health illnesses can be treated successfully with the proper diagnosis and proper medication and therapy,” Johnson said before bring Carter to the podium.

As soon as Carter began speaking, it was apparent how long she’s been fighting for this cause.

“Next year will be the 40th year I started working on mental health issues,” she said. Her interest in the topic began when her husband, Jimmy Carter, first ran for governor (unsuccessfully) in 1966. There had been an exposé in the Atlanta Constitution about the terrible conditions at the Central State Hospital, the psychiatric facility in Millidgeville.

Johnson chimed in to say that former Atlanta journalist Jack Nelson had won a Pulitzer for that exposé.

While Mrs. Carter was campaigning in 1966, people kept asking her what her husband was going to do to help loved ones housed in Millidgeville. She also was especially moved when she met an older woman getting off her night shift to go home and take care of a daughter who was mentally ill, a duty she shared with her husband who worked during the day so he could care for their daughter at night.

Carter said that woman’s plight haunted her all day, and when she surprised her husband at a campaign stop that evening, Jimmy Carter asked her what she we doing there.

“I came to see what you are going to do to help people with mental illnesses when you’re elected governor.”

In a response that illuminates the kind of relationship the two have had all these decades, he told her: “We are going to have the best program in the country, and I’m going to put you in charge of it.”

That began Rosalynn Carter’s immersion in mental health issues and becoming one of the nation’s leading advocates for treatment and acceptance — a role she continues to play to this day.

During her talk, Carter repeatedly said how frustrating it has been for this nation to deal with its mental health issues.

“Stigma is the principal reason we have not made more progress in the field,” Carter said. “It’s time for all of us to speak openly about mental health.”

She then thanked Johnson for his willingness to go public with his own struggles with depression and how that made it easier for others to go seek treatment.

Johnson then asked those attending the lunch whether they had had family members or close friends who had suffered from mental illnesses. Every single person in the room raised his or her hand.

In her quiet, soft-spoken way, Carter said she was mad at the lack of progress that our society has made in dealing with an illness that impacts nearly everyone — directly or indirectly.

“It just makes me so angry,” Carter said. “What makes me mad is the fact that we know what to do and we don’t do it. It’s the stigma. That curtails funding for programs.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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