Rosalynn Carter has been remembered for her dedication to mental health awareness during a tribute service honouring the former first lady.
On Tuesday 28 November, former US president Jimmy Carter was joined by fellow former presidents, first ladies, and US politicians for a tribute service at Emory University’s Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The service comes more than one week after her death on 19 November at the age of 96.
The tribute service included special speeches from Carter’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Since her passing, Americans everywhere have reflected on the former first lady’s mental health advocacy. Those who have worked closely with Carter are now highlighting how the first lady was quite ahead of her time when it came to championing mental health.
“I do not think there has ever been another sort of leader in the mental health field who has had as much of an impact on mental health care and access to care and how we think about mental health and mental illness as Mrs Carter,” Kathy Cade, vice chair of The Carter Center, told the Associated Press in the months leading up to Carter’s death. “And I think it has to do with her incredible concern about the issue and her perseverance for more than 50 years.”
The Carter Center was founded by the husband and wife in 1982, one year after President Carter’s term as the 39th US president ended. With the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, the non-profit organisation continues to promote awareness about mental health issues, inform public policy on mental health care, and reduce stigma and discrimination against those with mental illnesses.
She even created The Carter Center’s mental health journalism fellowship program, which has provided support to more than 220 journalists from the US and six other countries over the years, according to the fellowship website. Years after she established the mental health program in 1991, Carter lobbied US Congress to create a landmark law requiring insurers to provide equality in mental health coverage.
However, Carter’s work highlighting inadequacies in mental health services began long before her husband left office in 1981. In fact, much of her lifelong dedication began during her husband’s first campaign for Georgia governor in 1966, which she wrote about in her 2010 book, Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.
Carter recalled joining her husband at a rally when she was approached by voters distressed about the conditions at a crowded psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. She spoke to a cotton mill worker who explained that she and her husband worked opposite shifts to care for their mentally ill daughter.
She wrote that she was “haunted” by the conversation, and that same night went to her husband’s rally as a concerned voter herself. Carter surprised her husband, waiting in line to shake his hand, as she told him: “I came to see what you are going to do to help people with mental illness when you are governor.”
He responded by creating a state commission to improve services for those with mental illness, which Carter served as a member. As president, he created a national commission on mental health – leading to the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. Carter was named honourary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health in 1977.
In 1979, she became the first sitting US first lady to address the World Health Organization assembly about the mental health commission’s findings. During her address, Carter emphasised that mental health is an integral part of overall health as well as a basic human right.
Additional reporting from AP.