Feature

Rosalynn Carter’s mental health advocacy started in 1966 with an early morning encounter outside a Georgia cotton mill during her husband’s first campaign for governor.

As she waited to greet the overnight shift of workers, the first person emerging from the mill was a woman covered in lint and looking weary. She asked the woman if she’d be able to go home and get some rest, but the woman told her no, she had to care for her mentally ill daughter, relieving her husband while he went to work.

Rosalynn Carter thought about the encounter all day. That evening, she slipped into a receiving line to shake hands with her husband, Jimmy, at a campaign event.

“He took my hand and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I want to know what you’re going to do about mental health issues,’’’ she said.

Four years later, Jimmy Carter was elected governor and Mrs. Carter served on his commission to improve mental health services in the state. When he was elected president in 1976, she served on his commission to examine national mental health care. The commission’s report served as the foundation for legislation passed by Congress in September 1980, but after her husband lost to Ronald Reagan in November, the incoming administration abandoned an approach that she said would have improved mental health services.

At the opening session of APA’s Annual Convention, APA President Carol D. Goodheart, EdD, presented Rosalynn Carter with a Presidential Citation, recognizing her tireless efforts advocating for mental health. The citation honors her for her work successfully fighting for national mental health parity; her leadership at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University; and her books, including “Within our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis” (Rodale Books, 2010), which details the ways in which the current mental health-care system often fails people with mental illness, even as science has found increasingly effective treatments. Carter was one of the first national leaders to recognize the struggles of caregivers, which was one of the presidential themes at this year’s convention. In 1987, when she convened her first conference on caregiving, so many people came to the meeting at a Georgia church that participants spilled out the front door, she said.

“It was one of the most emotional meetings I’d ever seen,” she said. “We recognized immediately that we’d struck on an issue that was really important.”

—C. Munsey