By GUY LAMOLINARA
“First lady” is not an official title; there are no official duties attached to the position. And once you are no longer first lady, the expectations are even lower.
But no one ever said that to Rosalynn Carter. The former first lady, who lived in the White House from 1977 to 1981 with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, already had decided before she ever moved to Washington that championing the rights of those with mental illness would be part of her life’s work. She continues to this day, wherever she goes, educating people on how mental illness can be treated and how its victims can lead meaningful lives.
Carter came to the Library on May 10 to convey that message, which is contained in her new book, “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis” (Rodale Press). Her Books & Beyond program, sponsored by the Center for the Book, drew an invited audience of friends and fans to the Montpelier Room.
John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, who emceed the program, appropriately pointed out that Public Law 95-129 created the Center for the Book in 1977 when it was signed by President Carter. “So in that sense, I guess I owe my job to President and Mrs. Carter.”
Before introducing Carter, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington introduced Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who vigorously supports many of the same causes as Rosalynn Carter.
Kennedy thanked “all those who work at the Library of Congress for the wonderful service you provide to those who depend on it. … Thank you, Dr. Billington, for your leadership.
“Let me also thank Mrs. Carter, not only for this book but for your tireless effort on behalf of those with mental health and addiction for your whole life. … If anyone has been an example of making a difference outside of government, it is both President and Mrs. Carter.”
Carter received not just applause but a long, standing ovation.
“No one has been out there more than Mrs. Carter. The challenge of this battle is stigma. She understands the importance of her role in standing up for those who are often voiceless,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy spoke passionately, his voice almost breaking at times, about removing the stigma of mental illness and how the recently passed health-care bill contained a provision for “mental health parity”—that there can be no distinction in the availability of treatment for diseases, whether they be physical or mental. “When the health-care bill passed, people said, ‘Your father [Sen. Edward Kennedy] had so much to do with this.’ I said, ‘We all are standing on the shoulders of many who went before.’ … We were also standing on the shoulders of people like Mrs. Carter.”
When Billington rose to the lectern, he echoed Kennedy, saying, “They have been a remarkable couple—a former president and first lady doing extraordinary work.” He noted that “although her book is new, Mrs. Carter is no stranger to the issue of how badly people with mental illness are sometimes treated. She has been an advocate on the issue for 35 years, from the time she saw firsthand, during her husband Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign, the dehumanizing treatment of people with mental illness.”
“I see so many of my friends in this audience, friends I have waged many battles with in this cause,” Carter began in her soft Southern drawl. “And we also have to thank Patrick’s father, because he waged this battle for years and years, and we have to thank Patrick. … None of [our progress] would be possible without thousands and thousands of people like those in this audience.”
She recounted the story of how she became interested in mental health issues. More than 40 years ago, when she was passing out brochures for her husband’s candidacy as Georgia governor, she met a woman who told her how financially and physically difficult it was to care for their mentally ill daughter, “and that haunted me, all day.
“Our campaign was very disorganized,” she continued. “I was going from one town to another passing out brochures. And I learned that Jimmy was going to be in the town that I was in that afternoon, so I stayed.”
She was in the receiving line of people waiting to shake Jimmy Carter’s hand, when he looked at her suddenly and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I said, ‘I came to see what you are going to do for people with mental illness when you are governor of Georgia,’” she said.
Forty years later, she was dismayed to say that today, “millions are still suffering. We know what to do. … We have excellent models for treatments.” But many people do not have access to proper care, she said. “I am frustrated and I am angry: angry because we know what to do and we don’t do it, and millions are suffering because of it.
“I wrote this book because I want everyone to know what I know, so we can get over the stigma and do what is good and right for people with mental illnesses,” she continued.
Yet despite her exhortations, Carter ended hopefully. “It is time for all of us to speak openly and candidly about mental-health issues and to draw attention to the incredible progress that has been made. Today, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses have the ability to lead meaningful lives. I believe that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in the mental-health field. We realize that recovery is now possible, and we are learning more and more about the power of prevention. We have a great opportunity to change things forever for all people with mental illnesses.”
Guy Lamolinara is the communications officer for the Center for the Book.