CONCORD, NH (AP) — The sun shone in June 1979 as Rosalynn Carter made her way through an enthusiastic crowd in Laconia, New Hampshire.
“She shook my hand!” » shouted one delighted participant.
The first lady was in the state for her husband’s re-election campaign, but it was not a political rally. Instead, she was in a sprawling, 75-year-old institution founded for “feeble-minded” children that the U.S. Department of Justice had deemed “a classic example of warehousing.” She was joined by Gov. Hugh Gallen, a kindred spirit who had pushed to correct deplorable conditions there and at the state mental hospital.
“To go to a place like Laconia Public School and talk not to voters but to people who are facing a very acute problem – well, that doesn’t happen very often. That wasn’t the case then, and it’s certainly not the case today,” recalled Dayton Duncan, who was there as Gallen’s press secretary.
“She could have just given a good speech about what the administration was hoping to do and left it at that,” Duncan said. “But her going to Laconia Public School and meeting the people who work there, the kids who were warehoused there and the parents, was special.”
After leaving the White House, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter launched programs that, among other things, monitored elections in at least 113 countries and nearly eradicated the Guinea worm parasite in the developing world. But the former president said the Carter Center would have been a success if it had only accomplished his wife’s mental health work.
That’s according to Kathy Cade, vice president of the Atlanta-based center and longtime assistant to Rosalynn Carter, as well as others who know the couple. They spoke to The Associated Press in the months before Rosalynn Carter died Sunday at age 96.
“I don’t think there’s ever been another type of leader in mental health that has had as much impact on mental health care, access to care, and the way we think about mental health and mental illness than Mrs. Carter,” Cade said. “And I think that’s due to his incredible concern for this issue and his persistence for over 50 years.”
What turned into a lifelong crusade began during Carter’s campaign for governor of Georgia in 1966. Almost daily, Rosalynn was approached by voters upset about the plight of their loved ones housed in a hospital overcrowded psychiatric hospital. Early one morning, she spoke to a tired cotton mill worker who explained that she and her husband were working opposite shifts to care for their mentally ill daughter.
“The image of this woman haunted me all day,” Rosalynn Carter wrote in her 2010 book, “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.” That night, she went to her husband’s campaign rally and waited in line to shake his hand.
“I came to see what you are going to do to help people with mental illness when you are governor,” she told the surprised candidate.
Jimmy Carter responded by creating a state commission to improve services for people with mental illness. Then, as president, he created a national commission on mental health, leading to passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, a major overhaul of federal policy aimed at treating people with mental illness mental health in their communities.
Rosalynn Carter was the honorary co-chair of this commission and a driving force behind the legislation, traveling across the country to hear from experts and ordinary citizens and sharing its findings with Congress. Although it was effectively repealed during the Reagan administration, its defenders say it created a framework for much of the progress made since then.
At the Carter Center, she created a program devoted solely to mental health in 1991 and eventually created fellowships for journalists who cover the topic. Years later, she lobbied Congress to create a landmark law requiring insurers to provide equality in mental health coverage.
Those who worked with her over the decades say Carter’s accomplishments were rooted in her compassion and listening skills.
“His power comes from his heart,” said Cynthia Wainscott, former board chair of Mental Health America, a national nonprofit. “She is very, very, very kind and she listens to people. When you talk to her, there might be three conversations going on around you, but you know she’s focused on you and she hears you.
She was also an effective and inspiring mobilizer with keen instincts, Wainscott said.
In preparation for an annual mental health symposium, Carter once suggested contacting a pollster to hone in on a key message: that 20 percent of Americans will suffer from a psychiatric disorder in any given year. The investigator held focus groups and found that people didn’t believe the statistic, but if it was rephrased as one in five Americans, they believed it.
“When you hear 20%, you have to visualize 100 people and 20 of them are sick, and it’s complex and impersonal. If you say one in five, people are thinking about their workplace, their school, their neighborhood,” said Wainscott, who also led the National Mental Health Association of Georgia.
“If she hadn’t been in this room, none of us would have thought to ask a pollster to tell us how to phrase this,” she said. “It was brilliant.”
Journalist Bill Lichtenstein considered Rosalynn Carter “the patron saint of all those dealing with mental health or behavioral issues.”
Lichtenstein, who runs a media production company in Boston, was an investigative reporter for ABC News when he fell ill with manic depression in 1986. He later produced award-winning programs about recovery from mental illness, but he still remembers feeling rejected when he revealed his own struggles. Carter’s desire to reduce that stigma is at the heart of his accomplishments, he said.
“Ultimately, whether it’s more money for research or the chances of people with mental health histories being on an equal footing when it comes to employment or renting a “It’s the most insidious and difficult obstacle for everyone. Part of it is the stigma,” he said.
Lichtenstein serves on the advisory board of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Journalism Fellowship Program, which has supported more than 220 journalists from the United States and six other countries over the years.
Marion Scher, a freelance journalist and author in South Africa, received a fellowship in 2005. Her first article, titled “When is it more than just a bad day?” was published in a men’s health magazine with the phone number of a mental health organization. The response, in a country where stigma remains strong, has been massive, she said.
“The phone didn’t ring for three weeks,” she said. “They had to bring in additional counselors to man the phones.”
Scher now offers mental health journalism fellowships in South Africa, thanks to local sponsorships. That kind of multiplier effect illustrates the impact of Carter Center scholarships, and it wouldn’t have happened without his tenacity, Cade said.
Carter was a “woman of action” — unsatisfied with simply bringing experts together for discussions, she thought about ways to change policy by changing attitudes, Cade said, recalling how she would sit down with her advisers and tell them : ” What can we do ? What else could we do?
Associated Press reporter Holly Ramer received a 2017-2018 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.