Rosalynn Carter leaves a legacy through her mental health advocacy

Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 2:26 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Former first lady Rosalynn Carter will always be remembered as a great advocate for mental health both before and after her husband, Jimmy Carter, served as president.

And those in the mental health community will be feeling the void left by her death Sunday.

Throughout her husband’s political career, she chose mental health and problems of the elderly as her signature policy emphasis.

When the news media didn’t cover those efforts as much as she believed was warranted, she criticized reporters for writing only about “sexy subjects.”

As honorary chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she once testified before a Senate subcommittee, becoming the first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to address a congressional panel.

She was back in Washington in 2007 to push Congress for improved mental health coverage, saying, “We’ve been working on this for so long, it finally seems to be in reach.”


She said she developed her interest in mental health during her husband’s campaigns for Georgia governor.

“I used to come home and say to Jimmy, ‘Why are people telling me their problems?’ And he said, ‘Because you may be the only person they’ll ever see who may be close to someone who can help them,’” she explained.

Even before the White House, she was a member of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped when her husband was governor of Georgia.

And once they were in Washington, she helped bring about the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.

In 1985, she launched the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy at the Carter Center to bring together representatives of mental health organizations nationwide to focus and coordinate their efforts on key issues.

In 1996, she created an annual Georgia Mental Health Forum to focus on helping Georgia build a healthier mental health care system.

The Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, which she chaired, identifies policy initiatives for the Carter Center Mental Health Program and annual symposia.

Through the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, she addressed the concerns of those who take care of people suffering from mental illnesses and other chronic illnesses and long-term disabilities.

As an author, she wrote “Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers” and “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.”

Her mission has inspired mental health institutions across the country, especially here in Augusta.

“Seeing that the pioneers before me, were, you know, paving the way is awesome. And we want to continue to do that,” said Charley Willis, Co-Director of Georgia Family Crisis Solutions and Counseling.

They offer counseling, therapy, classes, many online services, mental health advocate events, and much more.

She says everyone should be advocates just like Rosalynn was and that she is part of the reason why they do what they do today.

“Mental health awareness is so important, especially for our friends and our loved ones, because it’s the silent killer. People won’t speak up when they’re hurting, when they have anxiety or depression, or when they’re ashamed about what they’re going through. Our past, you know, plays a lot of who we are today,” she said.

Even though there is more support today, getting help and checking on your loved ones is still just as important.

“Stigma still exists, because there are still some barriers that aren’t being reached, you know, financial issues, people have all kinds of things that keep them keep them from getting help, even their family, you know, friends, just their surrounding areas,” said Willis.

Even if you don’t think you need it, it doesn’t hurt to get extra help.

Ronald Willis, Co-Director of Georgia Family Crisis Solutions, said: “If you’re going to the doctor for a physical checkup, every year, I go to a therapist for a minute checkup. Because we want to be proactive and not reactive, we don’t want to wait to something is wrong, we want to have prevented things in place to help us.”

Rosalynn received many honors and awards for her support of mental health causes, including the 2018 Bill Foege Global Health Award, Volunteer of the Decade Award from the National Mental Health Association, the Dorothea Dix Award from the Mental Illness Foundation, the Nathan S. Kline Medal of Merit from the International Committee Against Mental Illness, the Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the Institute of Medicine, the United States Surgeon General’s Medallion, induction in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. She was an honorary fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.