Over a span of span of six decades, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter was a tireless advocate who fought to transform the way that mental illness – and the people who experience mental health conditions – were viewed and treated.

She worked for an end to the discrimination and stigma experienced by people suffering with a mental illness and sought to change the inequitable systems that kept people from getting the help they needed.

Mrs. Carter died Sunday at the age of 96 just two days after her family announced that she had entered hospice care. Her husband of 77 years, former President Jimmy Carter, entered hospice care in February. He turned 99 last month.

“I’ve worked on mental health issues since my husband was governor of Georgia, which is a very long time,” Mrs. Carter said in a video tribute released by the Carter Center. “I’ve worked on stigma and tried to overcome stigma because it holds back progress in the field. People don’t get help when they need it because of stigma.”

The Carters were partners in their work to create change in the mental health arena, although it was clear that Mrs. Carter, who had a cousin with mental illness, was the one pushing the mental health agenda. In a 2008 interview for the Carter Center’s blog, she said her advocacy began during her husband’s campaign for governor in 1970, when people often asked her what he would do about mental health.

“One day, when Jimmy was speaking at a rally, I got in line with everybody else to shake hands with him,” she said in the 2008 interview. “He saw who I was, grinned, and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I came to see what you are going to do about mental health when you are governor,’ I replied.” 

Former President Carter released a statement that spoke to their partnership, in their work and in their lives. “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” he said in the statement. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Mrs. Carter served on a commission to improve mental health services created by Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1971. Six years later, less than a month after he had become president, Carter issued an executive order creating a President’s Commission on Mental Health, and Rosalynn became its honorary chair. She would later become the second first lady to testify before Congress, where she spoke about the need for mental health reform.

The commission’s report helped pave the way for legislation, the Mental Health Systems Act, which passed Congress in October 1980. It authorized grants for community mental health centers and aimed to improve services to children, adolescents and the elderly, as well as to rural and low-income urban communities.

Less than a month after its passage, Ronald Reagan was elected president and in 1981, passed a budget act that repealed it, ending the Carters’ efforts to create national mental health reform.

Rosalynn Carter’s efforts to change the mental health system did not end there, however. At the Carter Center, founded by the couple in 1982 to continue their work on fostering peace and improving health in the U.S. and around the world, mental health became a key focus. Mrs. Carter created an annual symposium on mental health, a mental health task force to create policy change and, in 1996, the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.

The writer with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter in 2005 at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

In the years since, the program has helped train and mentor some 200 journalists from the U.S. and around the world who are now reporting and writing intelligently and passionately about mental health.

I was a 2005-2006 fellow, and it was one of the high points of my career. MindSite News reporter Josh McGhee is a current fellow.

Former CNN President Tom Johnson, who disclosed his own battle with depression shortly after retiring from the news channel in 2001, credits Rosalynn Carter with being a major catalyst of mental health change.

“One day I predict that mental illness will be treated no differently than other physical illness,” he said in the Carter Center video tribute. “When that wonderful new era finally arrives, it will be in significant measure due to Rosalynn Carter.

The tribute also includes a final thought from Rosalynn Carter.

“My dream for the future would be peace in the world, and freedom from sickness,” she said. “I don’t think that will come about any time soon, but at least I think the best thing we could do is work toward that goal.”

Type of work:

Rob Waters, the founding editor of MindSite News, is an award-winning health and mental health journalist. He was a contributing writer to Health Affairs and has worked as a staff reporter or editor at...