THE BLOG
09/10/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness: Looking for Heartfelt Leaders

No one has said it better than former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. The heart and soul of The Carter Center and its founder has led the charge to promote mental health care and treatment for children, adults and families in the U.S. for more than three decades. As noted, "The Carter Center Mental Health Program's mission to increase access to mental health services began more than 30 years ago and continues to be at the heart of our work."

I have attended several Mental Health Symposiums chaired by Mrs. Carter. Each one an extraordinary opportunity to learn, re-energize and engage. But more than that, it was a chance to see Mrs. Carter and her exceptional staff. The preparation, precision and grace of The Carter Center staff, together with the former First Lady leading each symposium with the deepest sense of justice that stigma would simply fade away as the evidence of recovery and effective treatment and supports continue to emerge. It was clear that she loves this cause and all those individuals and families who suffer due to a national crisis of broken and under-funded mental health care delivery systems. A centuries-old crisis in heart and head, which emanates from the social stigma and institutional prejudices that have run so deep, for so long.

This week a new research report on stigma was announced by The Carter Center, "Creating and Changing Public Policy to Reduce Stigma of Mental Illness." The study takes an intensive and multi-level examination of stigma and resulting prejudice that undermines the significant progress made over the past several decades. As stated by principal author of the report, Dr. Patrick W. Corrigan, of The Illinois Institute of Technology, "The Prejudice and discrimination of mental illness is as disabling as the illness itself. It undermines people attaining their personal goals and dissuades them from pursuing effective treatments." The impact, according to Mrs. Carter and Carter Center executive staff, are evident, "In the form of poor funding for research and services compared to other illnesses; structural forms of discrimination; and widespread, inaccurate and sensational media depiction that link mental illness with violence."

In my prior HuffPost blog, I wrote about atrocities surrounding the criminalization of persons with mental illness. In that essay, I wrote about the HBO award-winning film The Normal Heart and the divisive conflicts experienced by early leaders of The Gay Men's Health Crisis as they sparred on how best to influence public policy and governmental leaders to respond to the emerging and catastrophic public health emergency. The scenes were painful to watch, just as this report is difficult to read. Not because the premise is inaccurate, but because of its correctness. How could such prejudice and injustice in the face of clear medical and psychological advancements exist in 2014? We are caught in a paradox. The first, a paradigm of hope, recovery and mental health advancements in treatment and psycho-social services, which promote empowerment. Together with the excitement of peer specialists leading change, with choice and quality of life. While, at the same time, 40 percent of those who need mental health care, fail to seek treatment. Many individuals, turning instead to substances and other behaviors that lead them into cascading crisis, including homelessness, poverty, family erosion, victimization, incarceration and suicide.

Don't be misled by the gentleness and southern grace of Mrs. Carter. She has been a fierce leader, expert and strategic architect of mental health and human rights policy development for decades, leading from the heart. We need more leaders like our former First Lady.

As stated by Umair Hague, director of Havas Media Lab and distinguished author and blog contributor for Harvard Business Review, commenting on a "historical dereliction" of leadership in the U.S., "We need a new generation of leaders ... and we need it now." Noting that "life is not a game" and it's not about what you have and how much -- but what you do and why -- if you're going to live a life that matters. Profound statements, particularly when so many individuals with serious mental illness are behind bars in America's jails and prisons. Where brutality, abuse and neglect are systemic and human rights violations rampant, as reported by Human Rights Watch, with little public policy acknowledgment or heartfelt response.

That's the abhorrent truth of the depth and breathe of stigma and prejudice surrounding mental illness in America. So thank you Mrs. Carter for true leadership. As Umair Hague says, "Leadership -- true leadership -- is a lost art. "Leaders lead us not to a place-but to a different kind of destination: to our better truer selves. It is an act of love (a transforming love) in the face of an uncertain world." It may be an uncertain world, but we are clear about ending stigma and we need many more voices and true leaders of the heart -- now.

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