AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Rosalynn Carter used her position as First Lady, both when Jimmy Carter served as Georgia’s governor, and as President of the United States, to call attention to mental health.

While Carter’s leadership in mental health spans 50 years, pioneering and championing the cause for those who needed it, a lot of the mental health professionals we spoke with locally, were not aware of all of her tireless efforts.

“Mental health and the problems of the elderly. Those are the two things that I have been interested in for a long time,” said Rosalynn Carter.

Her work started in 1971 when Jimmy Carter served as Governor of Georgia. The Carter Center reports as First Lady of the state, Carter worked with the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. Media reports state it was her husband’s cousin, Tommy and his battle with mental illness that was the driving force behind her work. While many mental health providers we spoke with knew of Mrs. Carter, some did not realize the work she did to ensure people with mental illnesses had access to care.

“People like her and other people in those positions, we have to talk about it. Mental health, mental illness, mental unwellness is the root of every social problem that we have,” said Celina Keys, Executive and Clinical Director of Family Counseling Center of the CSRA.

Keys, who has 18 years experience in the field, said there’s still work to be done to help people who deal with mental illnesses.

“Yes, mental health continues to be stigmatized for a lot of different reasons,” she explained. “My job is not easy. I do not have the support of the community that we live in. We do not, mental health organizations, we do not have the support of the states in the way to support our people.”

For more than 50 years, Rosalynn Carter gave her unwavering support. During her husband’s presidency, she helped pass the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which provided grants to community mental health centers. And countless symposia at the Carter Center bringing together people across the nation to talk about mental illesses, children, the elderly and family coping.

East Central Health District’s Dr. Lee Merchen released this statement saying:

“Mrs. Carter was a force of good; well ahead of her time in advocating for mental health support, and she and former President Jimmy Carter single handedly are credited for nearly eradicating Guinea worm.  Extraordinary, and she continued her advocacy beautifully as a former first lady as well and am grateful for her advocacy for the most vulnerable among us.”

Dr. Lee Merchen, District Health Director

Another statement from NAMI was provided to NewsChannel 6. It reads:

“Mrs. Carter was a phenomenal advocate for mental health. She was candid in her approach to an[y] relatively unexposed subject, creating annual meetings on an international scale, writing books and impacting legislation. Mrs. Carter was a true champion for mental health and her foundational impacts have been tremendous throughout our state, country and across the world. What an important issue for everyone, and we are thankful for her efforts and hope to continue her legacy with compassion and understanding for those dealing with or impacted by mental illness.”

Peter Menk, licensed health insurance agent and leadership team of NAMI Augusta

Commissioner Kevin Tanner, Georgia Department Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities said:

“Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter championed care and compassion for those with mental health issues. For decades, she worked tirelessly to advance awareness and understanding. We mourn her passing and extend our sympathies to President Carter and their family.”

Kevin Tanner

“We have a waitlist of 180 people on it and no funding to support the least of our community. So, I feel like it’s very stigmatized. I feel like we have big fights in front of us,” said Keys.

She added Family Counseling Center of the CSRA is at the brink of having its doors closed due to lack of funding. Certainly, this is the opposite of what the former First Lady worked for so passionately.