Rosalynn Carter speaks out on the stigma of mental illness

Rosalynn Carter holds many honors. She helped found The Carter Center, a private nonprofit institution well-known for its mental health programs, which Carter herself helps oversee, having served as chair of the Center’s Mental Health Task Force. She’s been honored by the American Psychiatric Association, specifically with her work in destigmatizing mental illness. Through the Center, she provides the inspiration behind the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, which helps important healthcare topics reach a wider audience, building public awareness. She has spoken before Congress, established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University, has written five books – many of them on mental illness and care – and was also the first lady of the U.S.

All things considered, in her more than 40 years of work, Carter is undoubtedly one of the greatest advocates behavioral and mental healthcare has seen.

Early impetus

Carter’s story begins long before mental health software. In 1966, her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, had been campaigning for governor in Georgia. This was shortly after President John F. Kennedy had signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, which had been intended to revitalize mental health in the country, creating comprehensive community mental health centers in each state, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. However, money and timing didn’t work out perfectly, and as Carter recalled in conversation with Time magazine, mental health patients across the country were being moved out of the institutions they’d been housed in previously – but there weren’t yet any community health centers to bring them in.

Carter immediately felt that something had to be done. The state of mental health following the act spurred her into action, and she’s remained on the same road ever since.

The modern healthcare landscape

Today, Carter is 86. The changes she’s seen in healthcare have been significant, and her own impact continues to echo today. As major changes continue to improve the national healthcare system – such as the more ubiquitous use of mental health EHR and information exchange that provides for improved coordinated care – she’s turned her attention to one of her longest running campaigns: the stigma of mental illness.

Recently, Carter sat down for an interview with Behavioral Healthcare to talk about this topic and others.

The problem of stigma today

Recounting past successes, Carter cautioned that the U.S. – and the world at large – still has a long way to go in mental healthcare. Movements involving community services and community inclusion for patients are important, as are integrated services, which can help remove the delineation between physical and mental healthcare. But, Carter lamented, stigma and discrimination are still just as problematic.

“Stigma curtails funding for services, it hurts programs in the community, and stands in the way of getting policymakers – the people who can make a difference – interested in the issue,” she explained.

But, she said, stigma has also made strides in the country.

“When I started with the Governor’s Commission in the 70s, nobody wanted to talk about the issue, nobody wanted to be associated with it,” Carter recalled. “At that time, we had great problems in even getting people involved in the meetings, since they didn’t want to be identified with mental illness. We’ve seen great changes since then.”

Carter highlighted both depression and anxiety disorders as two areas where public discrimination has lifted over the years, but these are only two mental health conditions out of a variety that require the same level of acceptance – and treatment – as physical disease.

Giving back to communities

One of Carter’s other recent causes was highlighted at the most recent 28th Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium, held in Atlanta. Directly tied to stigma, Carter’s emphasis on “community inclusion” aims to give people who are recovering from a mental illness access to community resources, in part so that they could begin to contribute to their communities.

According to Carter, it’s a basic system she’s seen work numerous times. One of the most significant ways that individuals with mental health can give back to their communities is through peer support programs.

A word to caregivers

Asked to speak directly to the behavioral health services community, Carter assured them that destigmatizing mental health is essential for patients as well.

“I want everybody to know that there should be no shame or embarrassment about having or living with mental illnesses. Today, mental illnesses can be treated effectively – in many cases far more effectively than many other illnesses – and the overwhelming majority of people who live with mental illnesses can live fulfilling and valuable lives in the community,” she said. ” You can spread the word about that and about the fact that recovery is possible.”

She went on to explain that it is the professionals who can advocate respect for the mentally ill, but it must be a team effort. By creating a continuum of care and an effective support network for patients, they can find the strength to reenter the community and give back, which is yet another effective way to break down barriers and fight mental illness discrimination.


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