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Rosalynn Carter’s Mental Health Vision Is Needed Now More Than Ever

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As the world remembers the many legacies of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, high on the list is the incredible mark she left on the nation as a tireless advocate for mental health awareness. She spent a half-century raising awareness and stressing the importance of modernizing mental health care. Amid the mental health epidemic affecting our nation, it is important to reflect on Carter's efforts while enforcing our commitment in advocating for urgent solutions and access to basic resources in this area.

Carter, who died on Sunday at age 96, was 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. Carter’s tireless work to destigmatize mental illness encouraged open-ended conversations toward creating an environment that allowed many to seek help without fear. Her emphasis on the parity of mental and physical health allowed her to break the barriers to get access to care.

Looking to the present day, we find ourselves facing a 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 U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory earlier this year reporting that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at double the risk for depression and anxiety. The stark increase in anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses has led to a public health epidemic 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. Such services are often underfunded amid 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. Refocusing efforts in continuing to advocate for mental health care is one way to honor Carter's legacy.

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 artificial intelligence. The digital age presents an opportunity to utilize technology to our advantage in increasing care, including 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.

It is important to focus on preventative strategies. Expanding social emotional learning and mental wellbeing curricula within K-12 schools and colleges can reduce mental health risk and increase 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 children’s technology use at in-person gatherings to encourage their social bonds and foster in-person interactions.

Carter's persistent dedication to advocating for mental health awareness is a reminder 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, contributed to this article.

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