Rosalynn Carter: an American Treasure

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Most Americans probably didn’t even notice the incredibly important announcement made in Atlanta last week at Mrs. Carter’s 29th Annual Symposium on Mental Health Policy. The announcement made by Secretary Sebelius of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was the culmination of several decades of advocacy for mental health parity by Mrs. Carter and other national advocates. The Secretary announced the release of the final regulations for the 2008 Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addition Equity Act. Few outside the mental health policy world likely have any awareness of the decades of passion and commitment on the part of Mrs. Carter that made the announcement possible.

The regulations released on Friday will protect the rights of individuals living with mental illness by requiring insurance companies that provide mental health care coverage to offer it on par with physical health benefits. These regulations, along with the inclusion of behavioral health in the Affordable Care Act’s required essential benefits, will significantly increase access to mental health services for many Americans.

Mrs. Carter has been a fervent advocate for improving services to those living with mental illness since before her husband was president. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Mrs. Carter served on the President’s Committee on Mental Health, helping to facilitate passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. She continues her decades of mental health advocacy through the Carter Center where she chairs the Mental Health Task Force and leads the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health. Her book Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis put a nation on notice about the horrible condition of our country’s mental health systems.

So it was an incredible experience and privilege to attend the symposium and be in the room to witness the announcement that resulted in large part due to Mrs. Carter’s many years of fighting for better mental health policies. The emotion and excitement exhibited by Mrs. Carter made it clear that in her mind, and in the minds of most people at the symposium, this was an historical moment. I know that I will remember those moments for a long time and will always be grateful to Mrs. Carter for going down a road not travelled by many.

But Mrs. Carter would be the first to say that the work is not done. I have no doubt that she will continue to press fervently for enforcement of the parity regulations as well as continued improvement of our country’s mental health systems. Consumers, family members and advocates must continue to work with her to ensure that we keep moving forward until we can say that all those living with mental illness have the treatment and services they need to support their recovery.

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