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Rosalynn Carter Op-ed: Fixing Ailing System Achievable

This op-ed by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter was published Dec. 15, 2011, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I became involved in mental health issues in 1966, campaigning for my husband for governor. A newspaper exposé had revealed terrible conditions in our large mental hospital, Central State in Milledgeville, and families of the patients there were frustrated and almost beyond hope that anything could be done to help their loved ones.

Forty years later, our state's mental health care system has faced many of the same setbacks time and again because mental illnesses — although more common than heart disease and cancer combined — are deeply stigmatized and shrouded in myth and misconception.

Yet I have never been more optimistic than I am now that we have the tools, knowledge and will to help fix our broken system.

The 2010 settlement between the state and the Department of Justice, in collaboration with the Carter Center and other behavioral health community members, offers benchmarks and timelines for implementing more comprehensive community services.

It also ensures improved patient safety and quality of care. The settlement emphasizes community services over hospitalizations, which provides better outcomes for patients and is more cost-effective, too.

Our state's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has been collaborating closely with community members and advocates to identify and address the gaps in services.

While we have received increased resources to address stipulations in the settlement, they are not sufficient to achieve the broader transformation of the public behavioral health system.

It is important that Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature continue their commitment to invest in the new department so that it can meet its settlement obligations as well as further improve the public mental health system.

For example, the settlement covers only 9,000 of the most severely ill Georgians and does not include the needs of special populations such as children or older adults. The right kind of preventive and wellness services for them will avoid unnecessary hospitalizations and can save money in the long term.

The Carter Center has spent nearly two years developing a report on the behavioral health needs of Georgia's residents and recommendations for community services that reflect the highest standards of mental illness and addictive disease treatment.

This report is being presented at regional town hall meetings across Georgia, in partnership with the DBHDD, to help local communities set priorities for improving the systems in their region. The center will meet with stakeholders today in Atlanta and next month in Waycross.

We know our work is far from complete, but we must remain committed to finishing the job. Georgia's residents should not have to endure another 40 years of repeated history.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is co-founder of The Carter Center.

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The Carter Center is hosting a town hall meeting to discuss improving mental health services in Georgia from 12:30 to 4 p.m. today at the center in the Ivan Allen Pavilion at 453 Freedom Parkway. Reservations are requested to cartercentermhp@gmail.com.

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