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November 30, 2023

Rosalynn Carter’s Legacy on Mental Health

Today I honor the life of Rosalynn Carter and her groundbreaking work in the mental health space.

First Lady Carter served her country with strength and grace. In an era where mental illness was a taboo topic and the stigma was severe, Rosalynn Carter intentionally used the platform of her position to make a difference. Arguably one of the first advocates for mental health, Mrs. Carter used her voice and spoke out for others inflicted with mental illness. She led the fight against the stigma of mental illness for more than 45 years.

According to The Carter Center’s website, Mrs. Carter focused on the field of mental health throughout her public health career. She was a member of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped while President Jimmy Carter was the Governor of Georgia. Later, as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she was instrumental in the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. Mrs. Carter went on to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in an effort to have mental illness be covered by insurance equally to physical illnesses. 

In 1985, First Lady Carter developed the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy which has annually convened mental health representatives from various organizations to explore key issues and cooperation and collaboration. Over her four decades of commitment to mental health awareness and issues, Mrs. Carter also recognized the caregivers and family members of those that are mentally ill. Through the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers established at Georgia Southwestern State University, Mrs. Carter helped fund and create research, education, and training programs. She also co-authored two books with Susan Golant for caregivers of mentally ill individuals.

As many of you now know well, my sister, Catherine Airan passed away in May 2019 from a mental illness related incident. My sister was the brilliant and fearless beauty of our family. Only one year younger than me, Catherine (then Angeli – she changed her name during one phase of her illness), was my best friend. We did everything together. She made me laugh, we played together, she taught me to be confident and strong and she had a magnetic soul. All who knew her up until high school would agree. 

Fast forward, it was 1990 and she left for Georgetown University. As research has now proven, schizophrenia often is triggered during a life changing event like starting college. Catherine was misdiagnosed for over 15 years with manic depression, bi-polar disorder, PTSD (from losing our home in Hurricane Andrew) and more. The psychiatrists and psychologists that she would eventually agree to see did not have the experience, research or medication to know how to properly treat her. She was also just too smart for them. She would say what she needed to say to get out of the session with some or the other random medication.

It wasn’t until much later that she was properly diagnosed with schizophrenia bipolar affective disorder. 

In 1990, the stigma around mental health was real. Compounded with the simple fact that in the Indian immigrant community at that time – nobody asked for help, understood vulnerability or even knew about mental illness.  It was decades of pain, confusion, searching, crying, uncertainty and disfunction in our family. 

It has been a journey since then. Over time, my mother and father began to share and seek help as Catherine entered various facilities trying to get help. In 2009, with several other families, they co-founded Key Clubhouse of South Florida, modeled after the clubhouse concept worldwide. The organization serves the mental health community of South Florida with a recover-to-work model and has thousands of individuals in our community since its inception. One of the skills taught is culinary skills. The facility has an industrial grade kitchen that is named after my sister, Catherine. As the picture depicts, Catherine’s Kitchen is one way we try to keep her memory alive. 

After First Lady Carter passed and I had the opportunity to read more about her life and her pursuits and commitment to the mental health community, I was touched by the simple fact that Mrs. Carter’s voice ultimately created an avenue for our family to speak out for Catherine. 

We have a long way to go. The stigma is still real. 

BUT – we are leaps and bounds beyond where we were in 1980.  Thank you First Lady Rosalynn Carter for your passion and legacy. 

As I work with organizations globally, each day I hear a new anecdote about mental health. Every CEO down to the front-line consultant must commit to understanding their own mental health, empowering those around them with the tools needed for continued mental health, and providing the necessary avenues such as benefits, personal days, training, team-building and counselors for continued organizational health. 

This is one of the main components of DHARMA LEADERSHIP and a necessary one.

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