As the world mourns the loss of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, we look to the incredible mark she left on the nation as a tireless advocate for mental health awareness. She saw the importance of raising awareness for and modernizing mental health care over 50 years of advocacy. As we continue to grapple with the mental health epidemic that continues to affect our nation, it is important to reflect on Mrs. Carter’s efforts while enforcing our commitment in advocating for urgent solutions and access to basic mental health resources.
While serving as First Lady, Mrs. Carter proved to be ahead of her time as a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and reform, revolutionizing the role of the First Lady. In 1977, she held the President’s Commission on Mental Health, laying the groundwork for significant policy in improved access to mental health services and increased awareness regarding mental health. Mrs. Carter’s vigorous endeavors to destigmatize mental illnesses encouraged open-ended conversations in an effort to create an environment that allowed many to seek help without fear and her emphasis on the parity of mental health and physical health allowed her to break the barriers to get access to care.
Looking to the present day, we find ourselves facing an ongoing mental health crisis catalyzed by the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the exponential rise of social media effects on our youth and a host of other factors. The pandemic exacerbated stressors such as social isolation, economic uncertainty and grief, all of which can affect mental health. Social media has added to this given its increased usage amid social distancing, allowing many young people to depend on connection without face-to-face interaction.
The Surgeon General’s advisory reports that adolescents who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media experience are at double the risk for depression and anxiety. The stark increase in anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses has led to the public health epidemic of mental health issues we have today, often without adequate access to necessary resources.
Despite surges in advocacy efforts since the start of the pandemic, access to basic mental health care continues to present a challenge. Mental health services are left underfunded amidst a shortage of healthcare professionals. Nearly 30% of adults needing treatment and care were unable to access it. The stigma encompassing mental health, while improving, continues to persist in preventing individuals from seeking the help they deserve. In honoring Rosalynn Carter’s legacy, we must refocus our efforts in continuing to advocate for mental health care.
In pushing to expand access to care, we can look to innovative solutions both inside and outside our systems. One potential example is evidence based digital technology, apps and therapeutics that are often enhanced by AI.. The digital age presents an opportunity to utilize technology to our advantage in increasing care, using means of telehealth services, online groups, and health apps to provide services for those unable to access traditional in-person services. This is especially important in high risk populations and in rural areas.
Additionally, it is important to focus on preventative strategies. Expansion of social emotional learning and mental wellbeing curricula within our education systems in K-12 schools and college is the key to fostering a proactive reduction of mental health risk and basic understanding of this important component of holistic health. Initiatives such as the Emory University’s Cognitive Based Compassion program work to give strategies and tools to healthcare providers, teachers and parents to reduce the risk of burnout and promote wellbeing. Additionally, encouraging an increase in social emotional connections both at school and at work can also reduce the risk for poor mental health. The Surgeon General advises restricting the use of technology amongst children at in-person gatherings to encourage their social bonds and foster in-person interactions.
Rosalynn Carter’s persistent dedication to advocating for mental health awareness has left an enduring legacy, one that reminds us that prioritizing the mental well-being of our nation’s population remains one of the most important tasks post-pandemic. Her examples provide a guiding light in urging us to dismantle the existing challenges in mental health care and championing a revisioned, accessible system. In working to create mental health initiatives, breaking down stigmas, and embracing a compassionate environment, we can properly honor Rosalynn Carter and strive for a healthier future.
Megha Gupta, B.A. (UCLA), journalist, co-wrote this article.