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Rosalynn Carter: Taking us where we ought to be

January 25, 2013
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-In-Chief
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In a field where it is commonplace to see the names of individuals followed by an alphabet soup of hard-earned educational and professional credentials, much is to be learned from those whose names have no such attachments. Often, these are people who have led other lives, pursued other careers, and whose interest in the field of behavioral health was found later in their life’s journey—by coincidence, accident, or maybe providence.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is one of these people.  She grew up in a small Georgia town, married her sweetheart, Jimmy, at age 19 in 1946 and expected to live life as the wife of a career naval officer.  In 1953, when her husband’s family called, his Navy career ended and she became the wife of a peanut farmer and small businessman, a homemaker and mother to a family that would include three boys and, in time, a daughter.  By 1961, she was wife to a Georgia state senator.

Not until 1967, in the midst of an already busy life, did Mrs. Carter come to recognize the urgency of the cause that has since become an avocation. While campaigning on behalf of her husband in his first bid to become Georgia’s governor, she heard families express their concerns about the state’s plan to deinstitutionalize their loved ones, returning them to communities where mental health services—along with their loved ones’ hopes for a meaningful life in the community—were little more than an idea.

Moved by their worry, she listened and learned. It was here, in the concerned faces and voices of fellow Georgians, that her “real education” about mental health began 46 years ago. Though that campaign ended—a loss for Mr. Carter—her education about mental health issues did not.  When her husband won Georgia’s governorship four years later, she was prepared to sit on a Governor’s Commission that bucked a tide of ignorance, stigma, and ambivalence to put mental health on the state’s agenda.

When Jimmy Carter became the nation’s 39th President in 1977, First Lady Rosalynn Carter again stepped forward, shining a bright light on this still-sensitive issue while reflecting the Administration’s broader focus on human rights as a key element of its foreign and domestic policies.  

Embracing the cause of adequate community services for people with mental illnesses 40-plus years ago wasn’t easy, and certainly wasn’t politically popular. Yet, Rosalynn Carter, without benefit of advanced degrees or sophisticated training, adopted it in all its complexity because someone had to. In doing so, this slight, soft-spoken woman has demonstrated amazing persistence, quietly softening up the hard social, political, and attitudinal barriers that stand in the way, then encouraging us to surmount them.  

She did this in her public life and, since 1984, has led a noted international forum, the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy at The Carter Center in Atlanta for 28 years.  Now 85, she recounts the story of her involvement in the cause of people with mental illnesses in an exclusive interview with Behavioral Healthcare.

Of leadership, Mrs. Carter has said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”  It’s a safe bet that she speaks from her own experience.