May 4, 2010
Posted: 05:00 PM ET
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is the author of Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis, published on May 1 by RODALE Books.
My interest in mental health began in 1966, when Jimmy first ran for governor. Many Georgians were desperate and asked what my husband would do to help their mentally ill family member. Some years earlier, an exposé revealed horrors in our big Central State Hospital–thousands of patients packed into the mental institution, often for life, with few services and only 48 doctors. In 1963, Congress had passed legislation calling for closing the large state hospitals and building community mental health centers all across the country. This sounded positive. People would find help close to home.
But while campaigning, I discovered that patients were being moved from institutions before services were available in their communities. At 4:30 one morning, I stood at the entrance to a cotton mill, waiting for people to get off work. A stooped, older woman emerged alone. She looked weary, and her clothes and hair were matted with lint. “Good morning,” I said, “I hope you’ll get some sleep.”
“I hope I can,” she said, explaining her daughter had a mental illness. She and her husband struggled to care for her. “I work all night while he stays with her, and he works during the day when I’m home.”
She was exhausted. What would she find when she got home? Would her daughter be awake? Would she get any rest? I watched as she trudged away. This woman haunted me all that day, and I was compelled to try to help. When I first got involved, little was understood about the causes of mental illnesses, the relationship between brain development and the environment, or the most effective treatments. The world has changed since then. Functional brain scans track disorders in real time, scientists chart genetic markers, insights are emerging into the interactions between biology and the environment, and individualized medications hold promise for those who might have seemed hopeless three decades ago. Yet, despite these breakthroughs, in some ways we have hardly moved forward.
What are the consequences of our inaction? Our mental health system is still in crisis. Prisons and jails have replaced the old mental institutions. There are huge gaps in care for children and the elderly and a serious shortage of mental health professionals. People with serious and persistent disorders lack adequate community supports. Stigma remains our biggest obstacle and holds back progress in this field.
One in four adults struggles with a mental illness, yet we treat this large proportion of our population like second-class citizens undeserving of our help, resources, and understanding. This hidden minority among us endures pervasive discrimination. More often than not, their suffering and that of their loved ones goes unnoticed, and that hurts all of us.
May is Mental Health Month. With today’s expertise, we can change lives forever by moving forward into an era of understanding, care, and acceptance. Recovery is a real possibility. Let us all find the political will to finally end the mental health crisis. Our dream of a day when stigma no longer exists, when services are available to all, and when every individual can look forward to a fulfilling future is within our reach.
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