The Time of Her Life

Times Staff Writer

"While most presidents and presidents' wives think it is time to rest on their laurels, she has surfaced fighting."

-- Actress Mariette Hartley, introducing former First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter is 70 now; almost two decades have whizzed by since she and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House. "I thought when Jimmy lost the election, we'd go home and we'd be bored to death the rest of our lives," she recalls with a laugh. "But we haven't had time."

Consider their "retirement" agenda:

* Trips once or twice a year to Africa, where projects in 35 countries are sponsored by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, projects such as eradication of guinea worm disease and immunization against childhood diseases.

* A week each month at the 16-year-old center, meeting with fellows and staff. "We try to crowd into that one week everything we need to do in Atlanta," she says, "but it never works."

* Habitat for Humanity, a network of volunteers who build homes for the needy. Hands-on stuff, hammers and nails. "Next week," she says, "we're going to be building 100 houses in Houston."

* The Friendship Force, which promotes international friendships through home-stay exchanges.

* A plethora of books--his, hers and theirs--most recently her "Helping Someone With Mental Illness" (Times Books, 1998). Erasing the stigma of mental illness has long been one of her priorities.

She works to raise awareness of mental health issues worldwide through International Women Leaders for Mental Health, a global coalition of 44 first ladies, royalty and heads of state. The Rosalynn Carter Institute at Georgia Southwestern State University addresses concerns of those who care for the mentally ill and others with disabilities.

(Her husband has a new book, too, "The Virtues of Aging," coming out in October from Ballantine Books. And as we spoke, he was at home, working on "a historical novel about the Revolutionary War. It's based on his family." It's evolving, she says. "He came in one day and said, 'The strangest thing happened. Two of my characters had sex.' And I said, 'Was that a surprise to you?' It was, he said--they were taking on a life of their own.")

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"I've had a very interesting life," says Rosalynn Carter, in a bit of understatement.

"When you leave the White House, what you realize is you still have all the resources . . . because Jimmy was president, anybody in any field will help you with anything. It makes it so wonderful when you're really interested in an issue and want to work on it, to have that kind of resource."

Despite their commitments to helping others, life is not all work and no play for the Carters. They pencil in a week or two of fishing every year and only recently returned from trout fishing at Spruce Creek, Pa. "I'm an avid fly fisher," she says.

Still, in what was not an atypical week, she was at the opening Monday night of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio, then on to Los Angeles to promote her book and be honored for her advocacy for the mentally ill, with a guest appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

As a former first lady once widely criticized for sitting in on Cabinet meetings, she says she was pleased to learn at the First Ladies Library event that "the first Mrs. (Woodrow) Wilson became interested in housing issues and said she was going to rid Washington of slum dwellings." Indeed, Ellen Wilson was instrumental in the passage of a housing bill in 1914.

"We think it's unprecedented today if a first lady tries to get involved in legislation," Carter continues with a smile. "I think a lot of criticisms of the first lady are really political. That's a good way to hurt the president, to criticize his wife."

Current speculation about a possible race for the White House in 2000 between Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Rodham Clinton has not escaped her notice. Does she think there will be a woman president in her lifetime?

"I hope so," she replies. "I don't know why we can't elect a woman president when Great Britain and Norway do."

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"People still believe the myths" about mental illness, she said Wednesday morning in an interview before her appearance on the Family Channel's "Home and Family" show. "In the past, when we didn't know anything about how to treat people, we just put them away" in what first were called asylums and later called institutions. "The stigma is still there. The stigma is pervasive."

People connect mental illness with violence even though, she said, studies show that only 3% of the mentally ill are violent. In the media, "70% are portrayed as violent." In fact, "mentally ill people are more shy and retiring than violent" and are more apt to be victims than perpetrators.

In an effort to stop false portrayals, she has talked to Hollywood producers, directors and script writers and to influential people in television. False stereotyping also has been a subject for discussion at the Carter Center.

Her allies in the fight to destigmatize mental illness include the community of agencies that serve the mentally ill, whose media watch programs target unfair, detrimental portrayals.

Still, she says, the stereotyping "continues and it really bothers me."

Carter was honored Wednesday by the Culver City-based Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center at its second annual leadership award luncheon, at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Event chairwoman Cheri Yousem reminded the audience that despite efforts of agencies such as Didi Hirsch--a 56-year-old community-based center providing mental health and substance abuse services to families, adults and seniors--one "solution" to mental illness also persists along with the stigma:

"People are removed from sight so they don't bother anyone."

J. Robert Johnston, center executive director, said that at any given time one-third of Americans are struggling with mental illness and "most suffer in silence." The luncheon was an opportunity for some prominent personalities who have struggled with mental illness to lay it on the line.

Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger, who has suffered from depression, said the greatest gift he could possibly give his 5-year-old son would be that "he will have more knowledge, and more ready knowledge, available if, God forbid, a loved one of his has a mental problem."

Actress/author Carrie Fisher, a manic depressive, stressed the urgency of educating people in "how to deal with people like me."

Emmy-winner Mariette Hartley, national spokeswoman for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, introduced herself as "a late-blooming activist" in the fight to lift the curtain of shame from mental illness.

In 1963, as she watched, her father killed himself. "I was sworn to secrecy for 30 years," she said, because of her family's need to hide their "shame. . . . If I'd had a book like Rosalynn Carter's, my life would have been completely different."

Hartley saluted Carter for her 28-year commitment to helping the mentally ill. She is heroic, Hartley said. "She gives us all hope."

Accepting her award, Carter recalled that her commitment began in 1970 with a chance meeting, on her husband's gubernatorial campaign trail, with a Georgia mill worker who worked the night shift, then went home to take care of her mentally ill daughter so her husband could go to work. There was no safety net for them.

Later that day, she confronted Jimmy Carter in a receiving line and told him she'd come "to see what you're going to do for mentally ill people when you're governor."

As the nation's first lady, she was honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health, whose work resulted in passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which advocated health insurance coverage for the mentally ill and protection of the mentally ill from discrimination. Although largely dismantled by the Reagan administration, "it still has an impact,' she says.

In the years since, she has been recognized by the National Mental Health Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn., which has made her an honorary fellow. She created and chairs the Carter Center's Mental Health Task Force and each year hosts the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, where leaders in the field come to address critical issues.

Each year, five journalists are awarded Rosalynn Carter Fellowships, which carry a one-year stipend for study of mental health issues. Journalists' fields of study have included criminalization of mental illness, effects of child abuse and poverty on children's mental health, and how managed care affects mental health services. One study looked at the effects of stress on CEOs.

A video of a Carter Center presentation by Steiger and Walter Cronkite's daughter Kathy, who also suffers from severe depression, was shipped recently to Blockbuster stores. It's about coping with the stigma of mental illness, and today, says Carter, "there is one on every public-service shelf in every Blockbuster."

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She knows that stigmatization is not the only problem. "It's a pocketbook issue," she says. "Medicaid will not pay for anybody in a state institution, but it will pay for them in general hospitals, and in the general hospitals as soon as they stabilize and are considered not a danger to themselves or someone else, they're turned out . . . and they end up back on the streets. It's a real tragedy."

As a writer, Carter is prolific. She says she writes as though she were writing for her mother. "She's 92 years old and I have to explain things very carefully to her so she'll understand them."

But she also sent the manuscript of her new book (co-written with Susan K. Golant of Los Angeles) to the National Institute of Mental Health for review, "to make sure I had not simplified it too much."

She wants "Helping Someone With Mental Illness" to be "a guide for people who don't know anything about mental illness," as well as for "people who suspect a family member has a mental illness--or are confronted with a situation" and don't know where to turn.

She says the book attempts to explain "the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. What is psychotherapy? Behavior therapy? People absolutely have no conception." It also defines various disorders and describes their symptoms, tells what to expect during treatment and discusses the basics of job rights, insurance and managed care, and such legal issues as power of attorney.

It explodes a few myths, including the one that "people who talk about suicide don't actually follow through." And it offers considerable food for thought. "One study found that almost all Americans learn what they know about psychiatric illnesses from television. . . .

"It's a really exciting time in the research community," she says. "There's a lot happening and I think one reason is the influential lobbying by the mental health community. I think we're going to make a lot of progress in the next few years.

"In the past, it was hard to get funds for research because nobody thought much could be done. As somebody told me in the White House, it was just not a sexy issue." But today, with new knowledge about the brain and the potential for preventing mental illness, that is changing.

"Mental illnesses can now be diagnosed, they can be treated and the overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses can live full and productive lives."

She hopes her mental health work will be her legacy. Beyond that, she says, "I think I'd just like people to think I took advantage of my opportunities and did the best I could."

Yes, she was "devastated" when Jimmy Carter wasn't reelected. "I always thought until the end that he was going to win." But, she adds, neither of them "had time to mourn the passing" before plunging into writing, setting up housekeeping at their home in Plains, Ga., that had been vacant for a decade--and making plans for the Carter Center.

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