Legacy in Tampa Bay: Rosalynn Carter honored at USF’s Mental Health Institute more than 20 years ago

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TAMPA, Fla. - Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is leaving behind a legacy both on a national scale and in the Tampa Bay area. Her lifelong crusade to bring lasting change to mental health treatment is being remembered by local organizations.

The moment Rosalynn Carter walked into the banquet hall at the University of South Florida's Mental Health Institute in May 1999, Dr. David Shern noticed the whole energy in the room changed. She was honored at the institute's 25th anniversary celebration more than 20 years ago.

"Literally everyone in the room turned to orient and toward her," he said during an interview on Monday. "She accepted people with so much, with so much grace and modesty."

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Her lifelong efforts in mental health advocacy began as Georgia's First Lady in 1970. She also chaired the presidential commission on mental health when her husband took office in 1977.

She then led the Carter Center's mental health program, starting in 1982.

"She took a very active role in terms of trying to address what she saw as historical discrimination and stigmatization affecting people who had mental health conditions," said Shern.

Author Kate Andersen Brower pointed out Rosalynn was the first First Lady to use her East Wing office every day. She frequently advised her husband on foreign policy, China, the Middle East and national politics.

READ: Funeral, memorial plans announced for former first lady Rosalynn Carter

"She was his antenna, his lightning rod," said Brower. "She could pick up what was going on in the country. As president, he was kind of isolated on an island. And she was the person who could go out and talk to people."

She also helped convince Congress to pass a mental health funding bill, which sent money to local community health centers. Though President Ronald Reagan later signed a repeal of much of the law, the Patients’ Bill of Rights did live on.

Her advocacy stemmed from her experience watching a childhood friend be held by local police in straitjackets after mental health episodes.

"The fact that she chose mental health as her platform, I think really did set the stage," said Clara Reynolds of The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "I believe if she hadn't done that, we may still be about 20 years behind of where we are today."

On Monday, November 27, the former First Lady's casket will be in repose at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. On Tuesday, November 28, there will be a private ceremony at Emory University.

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On Wednesday, November 29, there will be a funeral procession, church service, and then burial at the Carter Family Residence in Plains, Georgia.

Former President Jimmy Carter turned 99 years old on October 1. It's unclear as to how much he will be able to participate in the proceedings.