Rosalynn Carter — Mental Health Advocate (1927 —2023)

Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter mental health campaign

“You always come in contact with extraordinary people during political campaigns, and often you hear their innermost secrets. I began to recognize the people who had something personal and very important to tell me: They would stand patiently at the side of the crowd or just wait next to me. Usually they needed money, but they always wanted to make sure I knew why: a loved one in trouble with the law or in a prison; a sick parent or child, often with a terminal illness. Over and over again the subject would be mental illness.”

Rosalynn Carter campaigned with her husband from his run for the Georgia State Senate to the President of the United States. The people she met, the problems she saw, the solutions she helped create touched her and her husband in such a way, that after a life in the Navy, farming and politics, they both decided to dedicate their time and their lives to programs designed to address the problems of those in need. Whereas many former Presidents of the United States have been satisfied to retire and create a commemorative library, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter chose to create something more than an archive and gift shop. Rosalynn recalls, “One night Jimmy said, ‘I know what we can do. We can make the Carter Center a place where people can work to resolve conflicts.’” From there, former President Carter defined the Carter Center’s mission as an effort to “relieve suffering in our country and around the world by focusing on the causes and consequences of war, hunger, disease, poverty, tyranny, and human rights abuses.” The Center, founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1982, now includes ten major projects, from improving agriculture to improving democracy to improving the lives of the mentally ill.

One morning while Jimmy was campaigning for Governor of Georgia, Rosalynn saw an exhausted woman emerge from a cotton mill after having worked through the night. Rosalynn asked the woman if she was going home to get some sleep. The woman confided that she had a mentally retarded child at home and that she had to work nights because her husband’s income could not cover her son’s expenses. So touched by this and many other brushes with the problems faced by people with mental illnesses and the people who care for them, Rosalynn approached Jimmy at a campaign event later in the day. As she tells the story, “I stood in the back of the hall while he was speaking, then joined the line with everyone else to file by and shake his hand. He reached for my hand before realizing who I was, but I didn’t care. I had an important question to ask him: ‘I want to know what you are going to do about mental health when you are governor.’ He replied immediately, ‘We’re going to have the best mental health system in the country, and I’m going to put you in charge of it.’”

Rosalynn accepted his challenge that day and continues to work on the cause through the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. Rosalynn notes, “Mental illness or serious emotional problems affect one in every four families in the United States; it could happen to any of us. Each of us at one time or another will be affected by marital problems, delinquent children, drug- or alcohol-related stress, the inability to deal with death or a serious accident or illness, or simply by low self-esteem.” Rosalynn believes the obstacles to dealing with these problems are founded in “dread and fear.” She notes that “these fears and suspicions, many based on myths, are as old as mankind, and they are deeply ingrained. Although most people who suffer can lead normal lives, there is such a stigma about mental illness that many who could be successfully treated still hide their problems. Admitting to a mental health problem can be not only socially embarrassing, but also threatening to one’s family and livelihood. I wanted to take mental illness and emotional disorders out of the closet, to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy. If only we could consider mental illness as straight forwardly as we do physical illness, those affected could seek help and be treated in an open and effective way.”

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Rosalynn’s dedication to the cause is rooted in her personality and life experience. Her soft-spokeness is overcome with diligence and genuine understanding of the human condition. Her words are heart felt and her emotions real. Her values and beliefs emerge from a synthesis of a small-town upbringing and a life of worldly experience. Where so many political figures today seem corrupt, contrived and created, Jimmy and Rosalynn defy any semblance of artificiality or deception.

The little girl from Plains—the one-square mile, population 600 Georgia town—never dreamed she would live the life she has. If a romance could be called a “storybook” theirs fit the traditional plot line. Her childhood friend, Ruth Carter had a brother named Jimmy whose picture she had fallen in love with. “Plotting a fantasy romance with him became a great game between Ruth and me. That summer, just before his (Naval Academy) leave was over Ruth called. She and Jimmy were going for a picnic. Jimmy paid attention to me, teasing me all day about everything, especially about the way I made my sandwich—with salad dressing instead of mayonnaise, and with the pieces of bread not matching. Later in the afternoon I went to a youth meeting at the church. I was standing outside with friends, suddenly a car drove up—and Jimmy got out. I couldn’t believe it when he walked over and asked if I’d like to go to a movie. On the way home he kissed me!” Little girl’s dreams come true.

After extensive travel with Jimmy as a Naval officer, and the birth of two sons, the Carter’s settled back down in Plains, Georgia. They both learned that their experiences had given them something invaluable—a worldly outlook. They had gone in one direction, while Plains, Georgia was going in another. This became apparent in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school integration.

“After the Supreme Court Decision, we were quickly thrust into the middle of the controversy. Jimmy was invited to join the White Citizen’s Council by the chief of police and the depot agent, who also happened to be a Baptist preacher. He refused but they persisted, even offering to pay the $5 dues for him if that was holding him back. He still refused, even when they claimed he was the only white adult male in the community who had not joined. They even threatened to boycott our business.” With this issue, Jimmy and Rosalynn’s political careers had begun. Both sought the opportunity to create positive change and understanding within their community. This dedication to civil rights translated into Jimmy’s eventual run for the state senate. His victories came with great adversity and Rosalynn and their sons often found themselves in unpopular and uncomfortable situations.

“When John Kennedy was shot the news was announced in Chip’s (Jimmy and Rosalynn’s second son) classroom. The teacher said ‘Good!’ and the students applauded. Chip, who has a quick temper like mine, picked up a chair and threw it at the teacher—and spent the next few days in the principal’s office. It was not the proper thing for him to do, but we never blamed him.”

Rosalynn Carter, Kathy Cronkite, Rod Steiger and Jimmy Carter
Top L to R: Rosalynn Carter, Kathy Cronkite, Rod Steiger and Jimmy Carter

Today, Rosalynn is fighting a similar battle against stubborn ignorance (although she’s keeping her chair throwing to a minimum). In keeping with Jimmy’s original theme that the Carter Center would be a place where “people can resolve conflicts,” Rosalynn is bringing together representatives of approximately sixty mental health organizations and their representatives nationwide to focus and coordinate their efforts on key issues. The annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy series represents a unique opportunity each year for a diverse group of leaders in the field to concentrate on an issue of common concern, identify areas of consensus and recommend action steps to move the mental health agenda forward. The target issues for the program consist of dealing with the stigma of mental health, health care reform and children and families.

According to Rosalynn, stigma is the first and possibly the highest hurdle to cross. “Mental illnesses can be diagnosed and treated much like diabetes or heart disease. There is no reason for anyone with a mental illness to be ashamed. Yet the stigma is so pervasive. We must let the world know that people with mental illness can live at home, hold jobs, and function as contributing members of society.” Rosalynn sees her symposium and task force as a forum to change these stigmas where people can “come together and talk about the issues.” She notes, “What we’ve learned at the Carter Center is that in every area we are trying to do the same thing—make life better for people. To do this we try to get people working together, and within the Mental Health Program we want to get together health care professionals, journalists, educators, people in the criminal justice system and see what can be done.” Rosalynn is not only working to change American stigmas but those held around the world. Within a meeting at the Carter Center of women world leaders, Rosalynn integrated mental health issues into the forum and created an international statement of action and reform which the leaders pledged to take back to their nations and implement. “It was more successful than we ever dreamed.”

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The program is having great success on several levels at home as well. The most obvious starting point in the battle against stigmas is within the media. The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships in Mental Health Journalism are designed to change the media outlook and focus on mental health problems and issues. Five writers, producers or editors are selected each year to create projects which increase awareness about mental health issues. Dr. John Gates, the acting director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program commented that the focus of this endeavor is the “idea being, by encouraging reporters and editors to become more knowledgeable about the facts they’re reporting, that they will throughout their career be more informed and less stigmatized, less stereotypical, and that through this they will hopefully begin to fundamentally change patterns of thought.”

The Carter Center has also produced a video titled Coping With the Stigma of Mental Illness, which was distributed to civic organizations and mental health associations and is available to the general public. The video includes information about mental illness and documents the candid accounts of Kathy Cronkite and award winning actor Rod Steiger’s battles with depression.
According to Dr. Gates, change is occurring. “When the Clinton Administration began to address health care, the mental health community was primarily concerned with just being at the table. After a year and the Clinton program going down in defeat, never the less six bills had been introduced in Congress and all of them included mental health. From anxiety about just being at the table we moved to the question ‘would we get equitable treatment?’ It’s progress.”

At the same time it is important for people to realize how pervasive the problems of mental illness are. More than 5 million people are disabled by schizophrenia, bipolar depression, and other severe mental illnesses. Twelve percent of U.S. children experience severe emotional problems and only about one-third of them who need mental health treatment receive it. Approximately one-half of the elderly in U.S. nursing homes suffer from major depression or some other mental disorder. And major depression accounts for more bed days—people out of work and in bed—than any other disorder except cardiovascular disease.

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If you think these issues are far from your family or your neighbors, realize that problems of addiction and child development are also closely related to mental illness. As Dr. Gates notes, “There is a big gap between what we know optimizes child development and what we practice” which leaves many children untreated and at risk. Furthermore, “The data that has emerged in the last ten years makes it crystal clear that there is an overlap of people who are diagnosed as mentally ill and who also have an addiction problem, and vice-versa as well.” Mental illness is an issue we all must face and understand.

Changing stigmas will change not only the willingness and acceptance to gain access to treatment by those affected by mental illness but also the quality and quantity of mental health treatment options. Just as Rosalynn Carter fought alongside her husband on campaigns to end racial stigmas in the South, she fights today, on so many fronts to change the way Americans think about the mentally ill. We hope again that her dreams come true.

Rosalynn Carter
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Chet Cooper

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