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Remembering Rosalynn Carter, Former First Lady & Pioneering Advocate for Mental Health Journalism

StoryNovember 29, 2023
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Image Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

We look at former first lady Rosalynn Carter’s decadeslong advocacy for mental healthcare in the United States. She died November 19 at the age of 96. Carter campaigned for legislation forcing health insurance to cover mental healthcare and fought to remove stigma around the topic through a fellowship program for journalists. “There are hundreds of fellows that were inspired by Mrs. Carter, and that has led to a sea change,” says Aaron Glantz, award-winning journalist and former Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism. “There was no established beat for mental health in journalism, and she’s utterly changed that.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden and Jill Biden, Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined other current and former leaders to pay tribute to former first lady Rosalynn Carter at her memorial service on Tuesday. All living first ladies were there. Ninety-nine-year-old President Jimmy Carter, now in home hospice care since last February, was also in attendance in a wheelchair.

Rosalynn Carter served as a longtime political adviser and strategist for Jimmy Carter, who went from rural state senator to governor of Georgia in 1970 and president of the United States in ’76. As first lady, Rosalynn Carter joined White House cabinet meetings, served as an envoy to Latin America. In 1979, Time magazine declared her to be the second most powerful person in the United States. She and Jimmy Carter also worked for years with the charity Habitat for Humanity building homes for people in need.

This is their grandson Jason Carter speaking at Tuesday’s memorial.

JASON CARTER: And again, a special thank you, Secretary Clinton, Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Trump and Dr. Biden. Thank you all for coming and acknowledging this remarkable sisterhood that you share with my grandmother. And thank you all for your leadership that you provided for our country and the world. Secretary Clinton and Dr. Biden, we also welcome your lovely husbands.

AMY GOODMAN: The audience laughed as Presidents Biden and Clinton looked on. Rosalynn Carter’s son James Earl Carter III, known as Chip, eulogized his mother at Tuesday’s memorial service.

JAMES EARLCHIPCARTER: My mother was the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics. As individuals, she believed in us and took care of us. When I was 14, I supported President Johnson for president, and every day I wore a Johnson sticker on my shirt. And periodically, I would get beat up, and my shirt torn and the buttons pulled off and my sticker always destroyed. And I would walk the blocks during lunch from school down to Carter’s Warehouse, and my mother would have a shirt in a drawer already mended, buttons sewn on and the LBJ sticker still applied. Years later, she was influential in getting me into rehab for my drug and alcohol addiction. She saved my life.

AMY GOODMAN: After leaving the White House, Rosalynn Carter campaigned to expand U.S. mental health services. This is an excerpt of a video tribute featuring her words.

ROSALYNN CARTER: I’ve worked on mental health issues since my husband was governor of Georgia, which is a very long time. I 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. We have a great opportunity to change things forever for everyone with mental illness. The solutions are truly within our reach. We can overcome stigma, and we can make services available to all who need them, and offer every individual the chance to create a happy and fulfilling future.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by the award-winning investigative reporter Aaron Glantz. His new piece for NPR is headlined “Rosalynn Carter’s mental health advocacy changed journalism — and journalists.” Aaron is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist, Pulitzer Prize finalist, who currently serves as senior editor at The Fuller Project, the global nonprofit newsroom focused on women. Aaron was a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center from 2008 to '09 and used the fellowship to write his book, _The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America’s Veterans_.

Aaron, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s so great to have you with us. You know, we’ve featured much of your reporting on Iraq on Democracy Now! We’ve had you on a number of times. Talk about how that connects to this fellowship you had with Rosalynn Carter. And even though the fellowship was named for her, did you actually get to meet her?

AARON GLANTZ: I did get to meet her. And that was a big surprise. I didn’t necessarily expect it when I applied.

Your longtime listeners and viewers of Democracy Now! will remember that I was in Iraq after the invasion. I covered the 2004 siege of Fallujah. I covered the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the attack on Najaf and a number of other incredibly difficult circumstances where a lot of people died. And then I came home, and I started to cover the experiences of American veterans who were returning home to a country that denied them the healthcare that was promised and the benefits that were promised, you know, basic parts of the social contract, that if you got blown up by a roadside bomb and couldn’t work, that you would get disability benefits. And yet I kept interviewing people who were sleeping in their trucks or on the streets or couldn’t get access to promised mental healthcare. And I was filing story after story about that, some of it for Democracy Now! And I wasn’t — I just have to say, like, we weren’t really moving the needle.

And so, in 2008, I applied for this fellowship at The Carter Center named for Mrs. Carter. And in the application for this fellowship, I had to write about how the work that I was going to do was going to address the issue of stigma, the stigma associated with mental illness, and make an impact. And I recall even when I was filling out this form, that it was the first time that anyone had ever asked me, you know, how my work would make a difference.

And then, when I got accepted to the program, I went to Atlanta. Mrs. Carter attended the entire fellowship training. I came to Atlanta multiple times, and every time I was there, she was there, too, listening to us, giving us notes. And I write in the piece that was published this week that she took me seriously, which made me take myself more seriously, that when you have the first lady of the United States putting expectations on you, that your journalism should matter, you start to think a lot more strategically and intentionally about how you’re going to move the needle.

And so, for example, at that time, the Department of Veterans Affairs was maintaining that there was no way to even count the number of veterans who were dying by suicide after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the year after I received the mental health fellowship from The Carter Center, I set to work to use public health records. And so now there’s this statistic: 22 veterans die by suicide every day. And it’s incredibly troubling. But now that the VA is tracking that, you know, they can try to address it.

And so, to imbue this kind of thinking in every single story I do, which I’ve now been doing for 15 years, is a direct result of the guidance and influence that Mrs. Carter had on me. And hundreds of other journalists have had the same experience.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Aaron, she also had an enormous impact on legislation and policy, as well, in the area of mental health. She led the President’s Commission on Mental Health that eventually was instrumental in passing the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. And could you talk about her work in trying to lobby Congress to provide more assistance from medical insurers to those who needed mental health assistance?

AARON GLANTZ: A lifelong priority of Mrs. Carter’s was the issue of parity in insurance, that the same health benefits that you get if you break your arm or your leg or have cancer, that you should have parity and be able to get those same benefits for any mental health issue that you might face, and that treating mental health and physical health on equal footing from an insurance perspective would go a long way to making sure people got the care they need, and also go a long way to making sure that people felt comfortable asking for help and seeking help.

And this is something that she talked about when I was at The Carter Center in 2008 and '09. It's something that ended up being passed into law during the administration of President Obama. And even now The Carter Center, in the last few years, has launched a new initiative with journalists to figure out how well that is actually going. So, you know, a lot of people in politics come and go on certain issues, but, you know, Mrs. Carter, this was something that she worked on from her days as first lady of the state of Georgia, before her husband was even president, all the way through, you know, until very close to the end of her life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we have less than a minute, but if you could talk about some of the other fellows that you worked with at the — in that fellowship and what they were able to accomplish?

AARON GLANTZ: I mean, I think the first important thing is that there were hundreds of fellows that were inspired by Mrs. Carter, and that has led to a sea change. When Mrs. Carter established this fellowship program in 1996, you would still see stories that said people were insane or crazy. And there was no established beat for mental health in journalism. And she has utterly changed that. There is now a whole movement of journalists.

And since she’s died, you know, I’ve reached out to a number of people who had this fellowship. And the one that really sticks with me in terms of really showing Mrs. Carter’s legacy is I had a chance to talk with Soreath Hok, who is a Cambodian American journalist in Fresno, who got the Rosalynn Carter fellowship to explore the long-term psychological impacts of genocide of the Khmer Rouge on her refugee community. And it was only after she got this fellowship in 2002, when Mrs. — sorry, 2022, when Mrs. Carter was already too sick to attend the fellowship in person, that she learned that way back in 1979, that Mrs. Carter had traveled to Thailand and visited Cambodian refugees in camps at a time when this was an active war zone, and then led the campaign to bring — allow Cambodian refugees to come to this country. And it was so meaningful —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Aaron.

AARON GLANTZ: — to both Soreath and to Mrs. Carter’s staff that they were able to come full circle. And I really think it shows how her virtuous work over the entire course of her life built upon itself —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, investigative journalist Aaron Glantz, remembering Rosalynn Carter.

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