Carter Center Helps Shape Public Policy on Mental Health

The Carter Center’s Mental Health Program supports efforts to achieve parity, promote social inclusion, and influence public policy on mental health.

When his presidency ended in 1980, President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, returned to their home state of Georgia and established his presidential library and museum in Atlanta. With a passion for peace building, they also created the Carter Center at Emory University. The Center operates with a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering. Its programs operate worldwide and focus not only on peace and human rights, but also preventable diseases and mental health disorders.

The Mental Health Program at Emory University focuses exclusively on awareness efforts, public policy, and reducing discrimination. With Rosalynn Carter at the helm, it played a fundamental role in the passage of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which ensures insurance coverage of mental illnesses at parity with other illnesses.

Lei Ellingson, M.P.P., senior associate director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, talked about its goals and initiatives beyond parity.

Q. What is the mission of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program?
The two areas we work on are stigma reduction and improving access to services through policy change.

In the stigma reduction area, our most recognizable activity is the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. It’s been a hugely successful program: we had 117 people applying for 6 spots this year. Every September the new fellows come in and report on what they want to do and get advice from current fellows and their advisors, and the outgoing fellows talk about the work they did. It’s a very interesting three days in September.

Then we do work in the public policy sphere. Mrs. Carter worked on parity issues for a long time and, once parity was passed, we worked on the regulations that go along with it. A couple of years ago, then- [Department of Health and Human Services] Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came and announced the regulations at the symposium along with Paul Wellstone’s son, David, so that was great.

Q. What is the symposium?
The Carter Center’s Mental Health Program has been around since Mrs. Carter left the White House and came to Emory. The activities really began with our symposium on mental health policy—this year’s will be the 31st. It’s always in November, and the topic rotates depending on whatever is hot in the mental health policy world. So we’ve been the release point for several reports, including the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health and the follow-up reports that were done by the Surgeon General’s office. We released the President’s New Freedom Commission [on Mental Health]. During our symposia, the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] did a BRFS [behavioral risk factors survey] report that included mental health questions. We also did a symposium right after Katrina, and right after 9/11, talking about the mental health effects. We anticipate that this year’s [symposium] will be on workforce development issues. It’s a great chance for the field to get together and come to consensus and learn about one policy area together—it’s usually about 200 people.

We also have a smaller version just for Georgia.

Q. What’s the focus of your work within the state?
Right now we’re working with Casey Family Programs in response to Georgia’s juvenile justice code rewrite. Like most states, they identified a group of children that are pretty much status offenders. They don’t really need to be in the juvenile justice system, they’re not quite in the child welfare system, they’re not abused or neglected. So they’re called children in need of services, or CHINS. And we’re looking at the behavioral health needs of these children and working on a project with Casey in northwest Georgia that’s looking at a System of Care Collaborative there and how they’re addressing CHINS.

And in our Georgia symposium, we focus on the state’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice around improving the public crisis systems for adults. One of the key components is supported housing. That was prompted by a series of articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [in 2007] around suspicious deaths in the state hospital. That got us involved and we just stayed involved. There’s a group of amici that we’re a member of, along with other nonprofits, advocacy organizations, and individuals. It’s been very gratifying in that it’s gone from being a very contentious situation to being very cooperative.

Now that we’re in it, we see a viable role for us to continue in the state—not just monitoring the settlement agreement.

Q. Does Mrs. Carter feel like the Center has made a difference and that she has really made a difference?
Yes, and she’s still actively involved at age 87. She will tell you now that the stigma—there’s certainly an issue around mental illnesses, but there’s been pretty good movement around depression and anxiety. There’s still lots of stigma around schizophrenia and bipolar [disorder]. She also frequently says that the recovery movement and the consumer movement have been tremendous changes in the field, and I think its one area where mental health and now substance use are leading the charge in the rest of the medical community.

This article was originally published to highlight the August 2015 theme of Mental Health Awareness. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

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Sarah Zobel
Last Updated: 04/19/2016