Rosalynn Carter's mental health advocacy left an indelible mark on journalism

The former first lady worked with The National to strengthen the regional standard of mental-health reporting

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Rosalynn Carter’s death over the weekend prompted tributes from around the world, with each and every one paying respect to her compassion, dignity, dedication and humanitarian instincts. It was particularly telling that those who stood on the White House shoulders of the Carters were especially effusive in their praise, recognising Mrs Carter’s multiple achievements both in the presidential years and in the decades afterwards.

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, said that she inspired a nation and the world. Their predecessors in the White House, stretching from the Clintons through to the Trumps, recognised her remarkable achievements both as a first lady and wife of 77 years to Jimmy Carter, the 39th US president, and more broadly to her commitment to mental health advocacy.

The role of first lady, which was Mrs Carter’s from 1977 until 1981, is a unique and difficult one to fill, heavily scrutinised in the US and the broader world, especially because there is no how-to handbook to guide a person through their White House years. A George W Bush Presidential Library research paper once noted that first ladies are “criticised for doing too much and for not doing enough … each woman has had to make her own rules and role”.

Rightly or wrongly, most first ladies end up being defined by the White House years and most presidents end up being consumed by the burdens of office.

Just as a US president is permanently identified as such, whether in or out of office, so it is that the naming convention of first lady is also indelibly ascribed to that person, whether they self-identify as such or not.

That makes it particularly interesting when evaluating the lives of the Carters, who spent more than four decades in public service after the end of Jimmy’s presidential term.

Rosalynn Carter went on to achieve many things. She developed a long-running second act in public life, a near impossible feat, and became a staunch and effective humanitarian leader through her work at the Carter Centre, the non-governmental organisation set up in 1982 to eradicate disease, resolve conflicts and support freedom.

In this current moment of both sadness and celebration of her life, she leaves behind both an impressive legacy and a large void.

For the past five years, The National has worked with the Carter Centre to run the mental health journalism fellowship programme in the UAE that bears Rosalynn Carter’s name. The programme provides training, funding and mentorship to journalists around the world. This year, fellows were appointed in the US, South America, Europe and the Middle East, part of a genuinely global reporting network.

Since 2018, nine journalists in the UAE have worked with the programme – the majority of that number are either freelance or work for other news outlets – which seeks to help increase the quality and improve the accuracy of mental health reporting.

In conventional, non-pandemic years, the bookends of each non-residential fellowship year are three-day September meetings in Atlanta, at the Centre, where journalists, experts, advisers and administrators gather to listen, learn, speak and swap ideas on the mental health landscape.

Mrs Carter would avidly engage with the cohort of incoming and outgoing journalism fellows as they discussed the reporting projects they were about to begin or had undertaken. She often described it as her favourite time to be at the Centre and it was her life’s work to improve access to public and mental health services. It’s no surprise that she was sometimes described as the “first lady of mental health”.

For those of us who travelled from the UAE to those meetings, her encouragement and dedication were both infectious and inspirational.

But more than that, for the reporters and editors in the UAE who have been through the programme over the past five years, it has enabled them to report on trauma, mental health provision and start-ups, living with disabilities and more in a balanced and nuanced way.

For those of us who travelled from the UAE to those meetings, her dedication was inspirational

The lessons each one of our fellows have taken from their attachment to the programme will last them throughout their careers in journalism.

The practical guidance we can also now deliver to colleagues within our own newsroom on how to fairly report on these issues, makes a difference every day in a post-pandemic, increasingly conflict-riven world, where there is a mental health angle in almost every story we produce.

We don’t claim to get everything right, but we are working hard to free our reporting from bias and harm – and will continue to do so.

There have been significant changes in the mental health landscape of the UAE in the past few years. Networks of support are strengthening, and more treatment is available within medical insurance cover than ever before. There is visibility, understanding and practical solutions are now available. Some parts of family law have been updated.

Even on the basic metric of discussion of mental health, there was very little when this news organisation started its life in 2008, and now there is more open dialogue and better recognition that mental health can be treated, just as with physical ailments.

There is, of course, plenty of work that still needs to be done, but we believe that this newsroom has played an active role in helping to chart a path forwards.

Speaking to some of our former UAE fellows since Mrs Carter’s death, there is a cast-iron desire to carry on with their work in mental health reporting.

If The National has been at all effective in helping advance those conversations, then a significant part of that is due to the inspiration and support provided by Rosalynn Carter’s work and fortitude.

She is mourned today around the world. Her legacy as an advocate for better mental health provision will thrive for decades to come.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National and the administrator for the UAE country programme of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism

Published: November 21, 2023, 12:52 PM