Former first lady Rosalynn Carter shares passions for improving mental health care, immunization
- Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Pediatrics
Highlighting her commitment to improvement in mental health care and early childhood immunization, former first lady Rosalynn Carter spoke to a captivated audience of pediatricians at the AAP National Conference & Exhibition.
Mrs. Carter said in her keynote address Oct. 11 that she wishes she could change medical school curricula to ensure all doctors are able to recognize symptoms of mental illness.
She related her experiences over the past few decades as an advocate for improved mental health treatments, reminding pediatricians that “early intervention is critical.”
With our knowledge of the brain, the former first lady said, “there is hope that children afflicted with mental health problems will be able to lead normal lives... and that the stigma of receiving treatment will disappear.”
“At no time is mental health more important than in childhood,” she emphasized, citing the 2001 Surgeon General's report of a crisis in mental health treatment of children. While one in 10 children has signs of mental health problems, only one in five receives treatment. Mrs. Carter expressed appreciation for the important role pediatricians play in the lives of young people.
“I have great admiration for you, trying to give children a great start,” she told the audience.
Mrs. Carter has worked on mental health issues since her husband was governor of Georgia and she was appointed to the Governor's Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. When Jimmy Carter became U.S. president in 1977, she took on the role of honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health. Her efforts have been credited with helping to pass the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980.
One of Rosalynn Carter's ongoing programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta is a mental health task force that brings together experts and advocates promoting positive change in the mental health field. Mrs. Carter also hosts an annual symposium on mental health policy, which this year focused on children and families.
During her address, Mrs. Carter referred to the work of Peter Jensen, M.D., director of the Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who is developing a list of warning signs of mental illness, which she said could be targeted to teachers and others.
“I don't like to make a distinction between health and mental health,” she continued. Mrs. Carter then recounted her longstanding efforts to improve early childhood immunization, applauding a Georgia program where children undergo health screenings along with the required vaccinations before they can enroll in school or child care.
She encouraged pediatricians to participate in immunization registries, lamenting the fact that only 31% of private practitioners choose to be involved in registries.
Mrs. Carter described how she co-founded the organization Every Child By Two in 1991 with Betty Bumpers, wife of former U.S. Senator and former Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers. When their husbands were governors, the women joined forces to work on improving childhood immunization, especially as a result of the 1989-'91 measles epidemic. Their efforts helped pass laws mandating vaccination for children entering school. When they began their work, only about 17 states required immunization for school entrance; now all states require it.
Still, each year as many as 2.1 million preschoolers are not fully immunized, and Every Child By Two promotes a systematic method to help ensure immunization of all children by that age. Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Bumpers continue to work together to help remove barriers and educate providers and the public on timely immunizations.
Mrs. Carter, who has written four books and received numerous awards, also discussed the Carter Center's international efforts in battling diseases, such as Guinea worm disease and river blindness, and improving agricultural training.