Opinion | Make long-term care for mental illness a reality

By Adam Brabender, Chrysalis Clubhouse colleague

I was sad to hear of Rosalynn Carter’s recent passing. I knew she was an advocate for the mentally ill, but I wasn’t aware to what extent. Now we all know.

In 1966 she learned about terrible treatment in a psychiatric hospital. When Jimmy Carter became governor of Georgia, he created a state commission, based on her advice, to improve services for the mentally ill. As president he created the National Commission on Mental Health.

As the commission’s honorary chair, Rosalynn traveled the country to hear from experts and everyday citizens, then shared her findings with Congress. In 1980 this led to the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act, a revamp of federal policy, seeking to treat people with mental illness within their own communities. Though repealed in 1981 during Ronald Reagan’s first year, the act created a framework for future progress, leading to the act’s reinstatement in March 2010 with President Obama’s signing of the Affordable Care Act.

In 1987, the Carter Center in Plains, Georgia, funded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers to support the “unique needs of those who selflessly care for family and friends who are mentally ill.” It built on Rosalynn’s belief that everyone is a “caregiver now, has been a caregiver, or will need a caregiver in the future.” For 46 years the institute has continued to give support to many unpaid caregivers, estimated to be over 53 million in the U.S. alone.

In 1991, she established a fellowship for journalists who covered mental illness. Years later she lobbied Congress to create a landmark law requiring insurers to provide equality in mental health coverage.

So her mental health advocacy legacy is clear. She should be commended for her efforts. How can we continue her work? Who of us is not affected by mental illness — ourselves, our family, our friends? I’m not ashamed to admit that I suffer with a mental illness as well as autism. Thankfully there are better drug treatments today for the mentally ill. But for those of us with a mental health diagnosis, there is still the terrible stigma to deal with every day. More still needs to be done.

A good start would be to reform Medicaid at the federal level so states can include people with mental illness in their long-term care programs, which help keep people out of institutions and nursing homes.

Now, every other disabled group — the medically fragile, the physically disabled, the developmentally disabled, the frail elderly — qualifies for long-term care, but not the mentally ill. Why?

The argument goes that they don’t need it because they get better with time. That is rare. Mental illness is a lifetime illness. It’s time for our two U.S. senators and eight congressional representatives to sponsor a bipartisan bill to make long-term care for people with mental illness a reality and to provide more support for their families and other selfless caregivers.

Adam Brabender is a social work major at UW-Whitewater and the Disability Caucus co-chair with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Published by The Cap Times on Dec. 17, 2023