February 23, 2004

Health issues dominate Oxford peace lecture

By Eric Rangus

Mental health awareness, childhood immunization, conflict resolution and the Carter Center's worldwide disease-prevention efforts were subjects discussed by former first lady Rosalynn Carter during her Samuel W. Mills Peace Lecture, Wednesday, Feb. 18, at Oxford's Allen Church.

Carter spoke for 30 minutes to a crowd of several hundred, then answered a handful of questions. She donated to the Oxford library a signed copy of a children's book her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, wrote about conflict resolution, saying that conflicts can be resolved the same way for everyone regardless of their ages.

Founder and chair of the Carter Center's Mental Health Task Force, Carter devoted the first portion of her talk to the importance of mental health, a subject she has stressed since becoming the first lady of Georgia in the 1970s.

She lauded new treatments and research, but noted much more needs to be done. "The stigma is still pervasive," said Carter the second member of her family to deliver the Mills Peace Lecture. Her husband did so in 1991.

"It is the one thing that has not changed," she continued. "It keeps people from seeking treatment because they don't want to be labeled mentally ill."

Carter then presented a solution. "The way to overcome the stigma is for a neighbor, friend or co-worker to come out and say they suffer from depression. It takes the fear away."

Carter also expressed concerns about child immunizations in this country. When her husband became president in 1977, she said just 15 states required children under 2 be immunized against diseases such as measles.

"We look at illnesses like measles and others that have immunizations and think, 'That's not going to happen to my child,'" Carter said. "We don't think it could affect our children." Therefore, some parents do not always take immunization as seriously as they should.

Carter said she was proud that Georgia was third in the nation in the percentage of children under 2 who have been immunized, but expressed disappointment that the national average (76 percent) has dropped in recent years.

Turning her thoughts globally, Carter discussed the Carter Center's disease-prevention efforts in the developing world, specifically the center's battle against Guinea worm. Carter said there once were 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm worldwide, now there are just 35,000, primarily in Africa. She spoke of a recent trip she and the former president took to the west African nations of Togo, Benin and Ghana earlier this month.

"We give hope where none exists," she said of the Carter Center's work, "and we give people a reason to believe that things will get better."

The Mills Peace Lecture was established by John and Elizabeth Mills to honor their son, Samuel, a former student at Oxford, who was killed in a car accident in 1986. The lecturer must be a Georgian who has contributed significantly to peace and understanding. The lecture is sponsored by the Pierce Program in Religion.

In addition to the Carters, past lecturers have included Rep. John Lewis and former Sen. Max Cleland.