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Rosalynn Carter works for change any way she can

By Tom Davis

Rosalynn Carter fawns over her "fellows."

The former first lady talks about how they're making the world a better place. These journalists, each of whom is a part of her Mental Health Journalism Fellowship program, are "reducing stigmas" and promoting the cause of mental health advocacy.

"They're sending a message that many people with mental illness can live normal lives," she says.

That's why September may be her favorite time of year, she says. It's when she meets the newest 10 fellowship recipients - which, in the 2004-05 class, includes me - who go to Atlanta every year to launch projects that dig into the tangled world of mental health.

Many public figures disdain media attention, because reporters may sensationalize and misinterpret whatever it is they represent. But Carter embraces it and believes her fellowship program advances a cause she's promoted for the past 30 years.

"We're getting more and more attention," she said when she met with the fellows last month. "It's just been wonderful."

led by her husband, former President Carter - has fought to reduce the spread of Guinea worm in Africa and Asia. It's monitored elections throughout the world and built foundations for democracy in countries once ruled by oppressive dictators. Her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts.

But the Mental Health Journalism Fellowship program, she says, is one of the best and most effective programs offered by the Carter Center. Those who have participated say it provides inspiration that helps get seemingly complex projects off the ground.

"It's something I wouldn't have been able to offer a commitment to without the help of the Carter Center," said Alex Spence, a New Zealand freelance journalist who published a magazine article on poverty and mental illness.

"It's the first magazine story I know of that deals with a person with mental illness, but that person wasn't involved in a crime," he added.

The Carter Center provides a stipend to fellows to pay for their projects. Each journalist has a year to finish it. During that period, each fellow is assigned mentors - some of whom are nationally renowned experts in mental health - who provide guidance and resources for the work.

As we did last month, the fellows sit in meetings with Rosalynn Carter and her volunteer advisers. In these sessions, Carter is polite, encouraging and can even get a little teary-eyed as she listens to the journalists describe their projects.

Her staff, however, is tough, and they prod - and in some cases even pound - each fellow as they offer suggestions and encourage the journalists to produce the best work they can.

Her husband will participate in some of the discussions. He'll hear his wife talk - in her genteel, Southern way - and flash that famously big smile of his. He hears about these "fellows" all the time, he says.

"I think she loves the fellows more than she loves me!" he jokes.

But the approach works, the Carters say. Since the program began nearly a decade ago, it has produced work that has earned Pulitzer Prize nominations. More important, they say, the work has produced tangible results and changed lives.

"Robert Landauer, a 2000-2001 fellow, covered mental health issues for The Oregonian that contributed to increased public support for reform of the state's mental health service delivery system," said Thom Bornemann, director of the Carter Center's Mental Health Program.

Rosalynn Carter doesn't apologize for using her status to promote the program. If anything, she says, it was her public career that got her interested in mental health.

She first became interested in the early 1970s, when her husband was governor of Georgia. At a time when the de-institutionalization of people with mental illness was taking shape, the governor was deluged with requests from citizens who wanted something done to improve mental health care.

Soon after Carter left the presidency in 1981, she helped form a mental health task force that's helped reduce stigma, her advisers say. Her gentle and honest but selfless stewardship also has helped turn the fellowship into a nationally prestigious program.

Recently, I saw it myself. Last year, I felt too many of the fellowship recipients were from large, national media like The Washington Post and "60 Minutes." So I wrote a letter that suggested the Carter Center consider that the negative stigma of mental illness is most pervasive in rural and suburban communities. Maybe the program should consider more papers like my own, I argued.

When I met her last month, she praised me for the "great letter" I wrote. I apologized, saying I have a "big mouth" that sometimes gets me into trouble. I didn't mean to criticize, I said.

"No, no," she said. "You were right."

The Coping column appears every other Tuesday. To suggest topics, write to Tom Davis, The Record, 150 River St., Hackensack, NJ 07601 or e-mail Please include your phone number with all correspondence.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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