Former-first lady Carter addresses mental health issues in Grand Rapids

Rosalynn Carter

Lauren Fitch

Rosalynn Carter

Lauren Fitch

Former-first lady Rosalynn Carter spoke at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum Tuesday to share her message that ending the mental health crisis is “within our reach.”

In promoting her second book on mental health issues, “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis,” Carter addressed the main challenges facing the community of people with mental disorders. As an average of one-in-four people will be diagnosed with a mental illness every year, this community continues to grow and demand more attention.

Carter said the main issue is the still existing stigma against people with mental health problems, which causes many to avoid diagnosis and treatment.

“I hope (the book) will overcome some of the myths and misconceptions about mental illnesses,” Carter said. “That’s my dream of someday overcoming stigma because not only does it humiliate and embarrass them, but it keeps them from seeking treatment they need.”

With 40 years of experience in the mental health field, Carter has seen many positive changes in the diagnosis and treatment of people with mental illnesses.

“Everything’s changed but the stigma,” she said.

Carter said the main themes of her book could be divided into three categories: recovery, stigma and prevention of mental illness.

The recovery portion was focused on soldiers and national guard reserves returning from war who must deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Carter said many of them do not get the support they need from their communities.

“Now mental illnesses can be diagnosed, they can be treated effectively and people can recover,” Carter said. “It’s just incredible.”

However, stigma is the greatest barrier in people reaching that recovery, Carter said.

Carter mentioned recent studies that have shown an increase in education and awareness of the causes of mental illness have not shown any impact in reducing stigma.

“This is so sad to me,” Carter said. She said they need to take a different approach and address the attitude toward the disorders of each person with a mental illness. One way to help people take a more optimistic view of their disorder would be to see a prominent member of the community openly talk about their own experiences with mental illness and how they overcame them, Carter said.

Prevention is best accomplished with young children. Carter urged parents to pay close attention to their children’s rates of development and address any issues early so professionals can treat any developmental disorders that can be a sign of mental illness.

The museum lecture hall was filled to capacity as three local experts from the mental health field joined Carter for the presentation.

Paul Ippel, executive director of Network 180, a mental health and substance abuse agency for Kent County, was the first to respond to Carter’s discussion.

Ippel emphasized the need of community groups and events to provide support to people with mental illnesses and their families. He cited several local organizations already in place such as the Mental Health Foundation’s Live Laugh Love program.

“We contribute to the stigma of mental illness when we fail to recognize and talk about mental illness as we would any other illness,” Ippel said.

Greg Dziadosz, president and CEO of Touchstone Innovare, then shared his thoughts on the separation of mental health treatment from the general health care system. Dziadosz said patients suffering from multiple chronic illnesses, including mental illnesses, do not have many options to turn to for all-inclusive care because of the distinction between behavioral heatlh and physical health.

To finish the panel discussion, Mark Eastburg, president and CEO of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, echoed the importance of peer support in battling stigma. He said there is still a sense of moral deficiency associated with mental illness. He said a public figure’s openness about his or her personal journey with mental illness and the impact it has would be significant in improving the public’s perception.

Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center, finished the segment by asking Carter and the panelists several questions.

They addressed issues such as research results and statistics in the mental health field, the cost of prescriptions to treat mental illness and the best methods to overcome self-stigma of people dealing with a mental disease.

For more information about Carter, her book or the Carter Center in Atlanta, visit

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