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Carter Center Calls for Better Mental Health Care for All Georgians

This article originally appeared in the Emory Report.

Five-foot-six-inches tall, Angela Ford's weight has varied from 90 pounds to her current 216. She struggles between anorexia and binge eating, and suffers from postpartum stress disorder and depression. She lives in Fulton County, Ga., which has no mental health services available to her. Even if it did, she couldn't afford it on disability checks anyway.

"I think about food all day, every day," she said. "I need help."

It is much needed help that she and many others are not receiving because of governmental budget cuts and increasing medical insurance restrictions. Georgia's public mental health services supplied through the Division of Mental Health reach less than a third of people estimated to have a serious mental illness or a serious emotional disturbance, according to a 2004 study conducted by APS Healthcare.

The Carter Center addressed this gap in service with other mental health advocacy leaders at the recent 11th annual Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum.

"A lot of faces go with that gap," said conference attendee Sherry Jenkins Tucker, director of Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network. "It includes adults unaware that what's bothering them is a mental illness; those unable to receive services due to money, transportation or cultural restraints; those facing insurance caps; and those afraid to get treatment."

Lei Ellingson, assistant director of The Carter Center's Mental Health Program, said the conference brings the advocacy community together to address problems like the gap in treatment and to move toward a solution with one voice.

"The gap in those receiving mental health services is a national problem, but Georgia is one of the worst," Ellingson said. "Georgia ranks 43rd in the country for per capita spending on mental health services. We have the evidence that the current system is not working, now let's use it to improve the system."

By tackling public policy and promoting public awareness, the center's Mental Health Program works to improve mental health care nationwide. Change at the policy level helps those at the consumer level, like Ford, who because of current policies feels little hope of recovery.

"With the budget cuts in the system, things are getting harder and harder," said Ford.

Ellingson expects mental health consumers to become increasingly frustrated with current policy, but hopes the center's impact will make a difference over time.

"The Carter Center works to improve the hope for treatment for consumers by working with the system to highlight these situations and to find solutions," said Ellingson. "We present the unified concerns of the mental health groups to legislators to make changes in policy."

Momentum has built following the Georgia Mental Health Forum. One follow-up meeting has already been held and a second one is in the planning stages. Representatives from four statewide mental health groups met at The Carter Center in July to develop a legislative agenda for the upcoming session. A meeting to form a common understanding of the term "recovery" will be held in this fall.

The center's Mental Health Program holds other annual conferences, including the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy. This year the symposium will address disaster mental health in the wake of Katrina and will take place in November. Mental health experts from across the country will convene to address this important issue.

"The Carter Center's continued involvement helps the mental health community," Tucker said. "The center has a great deal of credibility and great minds. Mental health has been a great passion of Rosalynn Carter as long as I've known about her. She cares about us."

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