THE BLOG
11/20/2015 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Simple & Powerful Light

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We have a crisis on our hands -- and it's not the crisis that you'd expect. The WHO and American Medical Association have recently released data showing that the U.S. is facing a profound shortage of behavioral health care workers, particularly a shortage of psychiatrists. In the country, there are 3,968 whole or partial counties designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas for mental health. In Texas, 185 out of 254 counties have no general practicing psychiatrists.

This is a daunting problem, and one of the many problems in mental health that former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been trying to solve for over 30 years. Last week, I was honored to join Mrs. Carter and many other thought leaders at the 31st Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy to discuss solutions for building a more robust behavioral health workforce.
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At 88 years old, Mrs. Carter inspires us all. A brave warrior for this civil rights issue for many, many decades, Rosalynn Carter is a leading voice of serious mental health policy discussions. Her advocacy proves that slow and steady commitment wins the race.

Patrick Kennedy can attest to this. In his new memoir, A Common Struggle, Kennedy recalls Mrs. Carter accompanying him to the vote on his signature Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act back in 2008. The vote was to take place in the middle of election fever, and the press had been hounding her on which candidate, then-Senator Clinton or then-Senator Obama, she would support. Rather than take attention away from mental health, Rosalynn Carter simply said, "I support...Patrick Kennedy for President!" Her commitment to the cause was and is awe-inspiring.

But Mrs. Carter is no ceremonial figurehead; she's actively tuned into the progression of this issue and how innovation and technology can help. During her closing remarks at the symposium, she referenced a recent conversation with Dr. Tom Insel and remarked on his recent departure as N.I.M.H's director for Google Life Sciences -- where the respected expert hopes to develop technology for mental health care, such as an early detection system for psychosis. Mrs. Carter's passion and willingness to engage and respect innovation like this reveal what a brilliant mind she has and what a revolutionary woman she is!

So what do the best minds in behavioral health care policy have to say about the shortage of mental health care professionals? The answer is simple, and something that we know all too well at Flawless: We need to put faith in relationships. We need to put faith in relationships between people living with mental health challenges and caregivers, between caregivers and caregivers, and most radically -- between people with lived experience and their peers with lived experience. We need to trust the healing power of human connections. We need to see the perfection in everyone and focus on supporting the relationships that can develop healthier communities.

One example of this was featured at the symposium, the Certified Peer Specialist Project started by the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network. Under this program, mental health consumers in recovery are trained to assist their peers in their journeys of healing. As the project states, Certified Peer Specialists (CPSs) are incredibly effective because, "Through their lived experience with recovery, they lend unique insight into mental illness and what makes recovery possible." In this way, we dramatically shift the traditional dynamic between health care provider and patient; we make mental health care something we all have stake in. We make recovery something that we are all, as a community, invested in.

In this kind of environment, it's a lot harder for individuals to fall through the cracks. And that is something truly radical.

Thank you, Rosalynn Carter. Thank you for continuing to create a dynamic space for this type of discussion to flourish. Thank you for shining a fierce, innovative, and Flawless light on the topic of mental health! #YouAreFlawless