How Rosalynn Carter fought the 'shame' around mental illness at a time when it was a taboo subject

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Americans across the country are reflecting on former first lady Rosalynn Carter's legacy after her death earlier this month.

Those who worked closely with the former first lady say they're looking back on her work fighting stigmas surrounding mental health − and how she was ahead of her time when she took up the issue in the 1970s.

“We are all the beneficiaries, and our children and our grandchildren will be the beneficiaries, of the work that she did,” said Rebecca Palpant Shimkets, former associate director of the Rosalynn Carter fellowships for mental health journalism at the Carter Center.

In her tenure as first lady during former President Jimmy Carter's term in the White House, Rosalynn Carter helped lead the way on openly addressing mental illness, with efforts including the President’s Commission on Mental Health. Historians remember the push as the first of its kind, and she served as honorary chairwoman during her husband’s time in office.

After the Carters left the White House in 1981, Rosalynn Carter continued her work through organizations like the Carter Center and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.

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Jennifer Olsen, the institute’s CEO, knew Rosalynn Carter as a boss as well as a neighbor, living eight doors down from the former first lady in Plains, Georgia.

Olsen explained Rosalynn Carter’s work stemmed from her belief that everyone had a role in caring for those around them.

“She did that both by listening to and hearing the stories of people with mental health challenges and caregivers, and then thinking about how she could use her unique platform as a former first lady to connect with policymakers and business leaders to make that change happen,” Olsen said.

Rosalynn Carter fought shame surrounding mental health

One of the former first lady’s greatest impacts came from battling the stigma around mental health and seeking treatment. Carter also called for raising political will to address the issue.

“Mrs. Carter always believed that if the public understood what she had come to learn, what her advisers knew about mental health, the stigma would go away. People would just have a better understanding of the issues, know how to seek help, and that they're so common,” Palpant Shimkets said.

“She was willing to take on an issue that nobody would touch,” Palpant Shimkets added. "It was such a mark of shame. Nobody wanted to align with it politically. But that just speaks so well to who she was as a person that she was willing to take on something that was so difficult.”

The President's Commission on Mental Health, led by Rosalynn Carter, was instrumental in the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. It marked a massive policy shift aimed at treating people with mental health conditions in their communities.

Carter as first lady traveled around the country to hear from experts and groups struggling with mental illnesses, and she called on Congress to take action on the challenges she heard about through her work.

While former President Ronald Reagan's administration ultimately moved away from the policies, her advocacy was still unprecedented, Olsen said.

“People were unwilling or uncomfortable speaking about mental illness,” she said. “It was a conversation that would happen in bedrooms and households, not in boardrooms, in the halls of government.”

Mental health advocacy was a lifelong passion for the first lady

The former first lady’s devotion to mental health began in 1966, during her husband’s first campaign for Georgia governor, after a conversation with a woman leaving a night shift at an Atlanta cotton mill.

“Mrs. Carter handed her campaign pamphlet and said, ‘I hope you can go home and get some rest,’" Palpant Shimkets said.

In response, the exhausted woman spoke about how she and her husband struggled to care for their daughter with a mental illness.

“This so struck Mrs. Carter that she determined then and there that this was going to be her area of focus,” Palpant Shimkets said. “It became a personal passion of hers for decades.”

The 'Steel Magnolia': Plains, Georgia remembers former first lady Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter worked hands-on with her organizations and their efforts, regularly attending meetings, trainings and symposiums, Palpant Shimkets explained. She would also lobby Congress to create a groundbreaking law requiring health insurers to open their doors to mental health care.

And the Carter Center for decades has organized around mental health initiatives and programs.

“This wasn't just an interest of hers or something she lent her name to,” she said. “She personally was involved in the work.”

Rosalynn Carter even built a strong relationship with a fellow first lady, Betty Ford, from a shared passion for advocacy, said Steven Hochman, research director at the Carter Center and a longtime aide to the former president.

The pair “lobbied together in Washington to try to get help on issues of mental health and drug use as a mental health issue,” Hochman said.

What began from interactions in her small Georgia community, Rosalynn Carter’s dedication to mental health causes carried through the Carters’ time in the governor’s mansion, White House and beyond.

"Even in her time in Plains most recently, she was connecting to people, listening to their stories with an empathetic ear and trying to think about how she could support or make change on their behalf,” Olsen said.

“She lived a life of service in her 96 years."

Jimmy Carter with Wife Rosalynn Carter at the National Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York July 15, 1976.
Jimmy Carter with Wife Rosalynn Carter at the National Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York July 15, 1976.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rosalynn Carter leaves legacy of fighting mental health care stigmas