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Former first lady, Rosalynn Carter, celebrates mental health progress, questions stigma

November 08, 2012

In remarks concluding the first day of the recent Mental Health Policy Symposium that bears her name, former First Lady and symposium chair Rosalynn Carter celebrated the progress of the field in delivering effective mental health treatment, yet lamented the continued stigma that follows those with mental illnesses, a stigma based largely on outdated perceptions of the manifestations of illness and the effectiveness of treatment.

Commenting on the rise of the recovery movement—a movement that holds that mental illnesses can, through therapy and medications—be effectively managed and, in many cases, entirely resolved, Carter looked back to the days when thoughts of recovery seemed impossible.

“When I started working in the field of mental health 41 years ago, none of us would have ever dreamed that people with mental illness could recover,” said the former first lady. “Yet today, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses will recover if only they get help.”

The symposium’s theme, “Beyond Stigma, Advancing the social inclusion of people with mental illnesses,” brought a diverse, international group of some 200 behavioral health experts, practitioners, researchers, and peers to the Carter Center and Presidential Library in Atlanta. During the course of the symosium, participants explored successful strategies for reducing stigma and expanding the social inclusion of people with mental illnesses and disabilities, strategies currently in use by government and community organizations around the world. It also highlighted numerous life stories of individuals who grasped, then held onto, a vision of recovery that saw them through significant mental illness or addiction problems and enabled them to build, or continue as successful, taxpaying citizens.

The conference’s first keynote, by Elyn Saks, PhD, JD a professor of Law, Psychology, and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California, offered insights into her learned ability to “manage” a significant mental illness—schizophrenia—through a combination of rigorous academic and professional work, regular talk psychotherapy, and medication. Today, she ranks as one of the nation’s foremost experts on mental health law, thanks in part to the insights she gained during several psychiatric hospitalizations.

No one had to explain to her that there was a stigma attached to a mental health diagnosis, Saks explained. “It’s so powerful that I did not tell my story until late in my career.  We all waited until we were far along in our careers—because of the substantial professional and personal risks involved.”

She suggested that perhaps the best way to understand stigma is to “think of your profession’s attitude toward applicants with a mental illness.  If they ask one of us for advice, our message usually is ‘hide it if you can.’” Saks contrasted this attitude for mental illness with more contemporary attitudes about cancer. “People who survive cancer wear t-shirts, they march, they celebrate and are proud of their victory.  Maybe someday . . . “ she hinted.

Her approach, having lived for decades with illness, is that “I view my illness as an accident, not as an identity.”  Again and again, she found through living that “the humanity we share is more important than any illness.”

She also asserted that, despite the need to manage her mental illness, her brain—and all of its gifts—was essential to her success.  At times, she described her brain as “my worst enemy,” but noted that most often, it had been “my best friend.”  She quoted another individual in recovery who said, “Don’t take my devils away because you’ll take my angels, too.”

Like Saks, another person recovering from mental illness, Jesse Close, sister of actress Glenn Close, cited the importance of developing a trusted support system as an essential element to long-term recovery.  She noted that, following her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her family and friends played an important role in helping her to manage and monitor her progress. 

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