Farewell To A First Class First Lady
by John Maelan
Well, I suppose just as with all good things, all good people must come to an end.
The Washington County Democrats are now mourning the loss of Rosalynn Carter, a great lady and a great Democrat with many an accomplishment, who also happened to be married to some guy named Jimmy. As I write this (November 29, 2023) her funeral is in progress, with close family and friends all around her casket… not to mention a few rather notable dignitaries, but I digress.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born into an age where women were largely expected to be little more than the wife of Mr. So-and-so, or the mother of the famous what’s-his-face. But Rosalynn was more than merely her husband’s wife or her children’s mother… so much more.
A fierce advocate for the less fortunate, she championed the cause of mental health in America at a time when being mentally ill was considered either pathetic, dangerous, or somehow funny.
Rosalynn, however, saw mental illness as an affliction that blighted the lives of thousands upon thousands of Americans, and for that reason alone, this brave woman rolled up her sleeves to help. In sort, she saw the need and she decided to take action.
Her fervent desire in this cause was simply: “For every person who needs mental health care to be able to receive it close to his home, and to remove the stigma from mental health care so people will be free to talk about it and seek help.”
During her time in the White House, she served as chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. And it was in this capacity, in 1980, that she became only the second First Lady to testify before Congress (the first being another Democrat named Eleanor). After she left Washington, she created and served as the chair of the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, an advisory board of experts and advocates seeking to promote positive change in the mental health field. In April 1984, she became an Honorary Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and served as a board member emeritus of the National Mental Health Association. Then in 1985, she decided more had to be done, and so she started the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.
The success of that symposium led to the creation of the Mental Health Program in 1991. But she wasn’t finished yet! Rosalynn then established the Mental Health Task Force that same year to guide the annual symposia. Oh, and she next became chair of the International Women Leaders for Mental Health in 1992. And to this very day, the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism provide stipends to journalists to report on topics related to mental health or mental illnesses.
Take THAT, Mental Illness!
All of these accomplishments for many of us would constitute a lifetime’s work… but Rosalynn wasn’t done. Next, she testified again before Congress regarding the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which requires equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses when policies include both types of coverage.
So, if your health insurance today covers your marriage counseling, your child’s attention-deficit disorder, your brother’s addiction treatment, or whatnot, you now know who to thank.
And thanked she was.
In 2001, Rosalynn Carter became the third First Lady to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, joining Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt. She also earned the Dorothea Dix Mental Illness Foundation Award in 1988, the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged in 1996, and the Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health, Institute of Medicine, in 2000.
And, I’ve got to personally say, “wow… just… wow.”
She did so much, and truly was well recognized in her time. However, I think it is clear looking at this amazing woman’s life story, that she didn’t do it for the recognition. Face it, once you’re First Lady of the United States of America, you have all the recognition you’ll ever need. People will be forever lining up to shake the hand of the President’s wife, and nothing more is actually required of her. But Rosalynn obviously felt differently. She believed that from those who had been given much in life, much should be given back. She lived for others, and she lived for us.
Thank you, Rosalynn Carter. Thank you for a life well lived as an example to us all. You will be missed.