SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at the age of 96, was the former First Lady of the State of Georgia, then later of the United States. Throughout her time in these positions, and throughout the rest of her life, Carter was a staunch advocate for mental health, something she is remembered for today.
“She was an amazing lady. She was so far ahead of her time in advocacy for mental health,” said Dr. David Ermer, Clinical Vice President of Behavioral Services at Avera McKennan, who has been in the mental health field since 1990.
Ermer, familiar with Carter’s impact on his field, reflected that Carter’s public advocacy began back in 1971 when she was First Lady of Georgia.
One area Ermer saw a major impact from Carter’s advocacy was in the area of de-stigmatization.
“We’re still working to de-stigmatize mental illness,” Ermer said. “We’ve come a long way — but it’s still a work in progress — she really laid the groundwork.”
Ermer says we look to those in leadership to help push these issues, something he says Carter was willing to do. “Having a First Lady discuss how mental illness is a medical illness helps move the needle,” he said.
Carter was also involved in driving policy surrounding mental illness, said Ermer. “She really moved to try to develop parity for reimbursement for mental health conditions from insurance companies,” he said. “She really tried to improve the mental health system to provide better access to mental health treatment.”
Ermer also talked about the importance of education. “Just educating the public on what is a mental illness or how to treat it,” he said. “I think it’s important because the majority of people with mental health conditions still don’t get the adequate treatment.”
Looking toward the future, Ermer says there is still plenty of work to do. “I think the biggest issue is just a shortage of mental health care providers,” he said. “I think we really need to continue with the work [Carter] was doing — she was trying to improve access.”
One particular area in which Ermer says Carter had a big effect was her push to get mental health services into schools. “What a great way to provide access,” he said, adding that a remaining hurdle to this access is affordability.
“I think we should celebrate Rosalynn Carter for what she has done, and we need to make her proud,” said Ermer. “Her work’s not complete. We need to move forward with continuing advocacy and treatment for mental health.”