Rosalynn Carter Brings Sature, Dedication to Fight for Mental Health System Reform

Issue Date: 
November 1, 2010
Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Rosalyn CarterChancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Rosalynn Carter

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter began championing mental health rights and reform during the mid-1960s, when she and her husband, Jimmy, were working on his gubernatorial campaign. During one particular stop—at an Atlanta cotton mill—Mrs. Carter greeted an older weary woman, clothes and hair covered with lint, who was just leaving her overnight shift.

“Good morning, I hope you’re going home to get some sleep,” Mrs. Carter had said.

The woman answered that she hoped so, too, but that she and her husband, who worked during the day, were caring for their mentally ill daughter. The woman added that she never knew what to expect when she got home. Mrs. Carter said the image haunted her and ignited her desire to work diligently for mental health care reform.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg retold this anecdote from Mrs. Carter’s most recent book, Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis (Rodale Books, 2010), during his Oct. 27 introduction of her as the keynote speaker for the 2010 Marcé Society International Conference, held Oct. 27-30 at the Station Square Sheraton. The annual event, which focuses on women’s mental health issues related to childbearing, was cosponsored by several organizations, including Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC and UPMC Health Plan. Katherine L. Wisner, Pitt professor of psychiatry, obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, and epidemiology in Pitt’s School of Medicine, is the outgoing president of Marcé and only the second American to hold that position.

Nordenberg said Mrs. Carter was a “shining exemplar of human values,” and he praised her dedication and effort in trying to break down the stigma associated with mental illness and the barriers that impede many people with such illnesses.

“When people who hold prominent and responsible positions speak out, it has an impact on the thinking of others,” the chancellor commented after Mrs. Carter’s talk.

And speak out Mrs. Carter did.

“We spend $120 billion in this country on mental illness,” Mrs. Carter told the audience. “And look what we have—a system in shambles.”

There is a great need for many more mental health care professionals, Mrs. Carter added, for organizations to share information on programs that succeed and for additional attention to be paid to the nation’s returning war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.

Mrs. Carter also spoke of the need to teach law enforcement officers how to recognize mental illness, so that people with a mental illness involved in disturbances are taken to hospitals instead of jails: “The L.A. County Jail and Rikers Island are the largest mental health institutions in the world.”

Carter recalled that during her husband’s campaign for governor in the mid-1960s, people would ask daily what her husband, if elected, would do about residents housed in Georgia’s huge and overcrowded Central State Hospital. Never able to find time alone with him, at one point during the hectic campaign she waited in line to shake her surprised husband’s hand and ask him point-blank what he planned to do for Georgians with mental illness. He replied that he was going to establish a commission and put her in charge of it, Mrs. Carter said.

Mrs. Carter worked with Atlanta’s few mental health advocates at the time as part of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped.

“It was hard to get people to come to meetings,” she recalled. “No one wanted to be involved in the issue. No one wanted to admit a family member was struggling.”

Once in the White House, the First Lady was an active honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health and worked to pass the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, only to see it abandoned, she said, by the next president to take office.

Mrs. Carter’s post-White House work with The Carter Center has included hosting an annual symposium for leaders of mental health groups. Her Rosalynn Carter Institute supports individuals and caregivers coping with chronic illness and disability. She has written five books and has received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Following her talk, Mrs. Carter was presented with the Marcé Medal in recognition of her compassion and advocacy for the mentally ill.

And she appeared to be equally touched by a gift for another one of her passions: fly fishing. A 14-year-old boy associated with the local organization Family Tyes—which encourages youth development and environmental conservation through fly fishing— presented Mrs. Carter with several boxes of hand-tied flies for her next fishing trip.