The author (at right) with President Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and actor Rod Steiger at center. Courtesy Verinda Birdsong

It was in 1997 when I worked at the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, in the mental health unit for the attending resident psychiatrist. When President Jimmy Carter was in office, First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s platform was that of an advocate for mental health. She and the President founded the Carter Center in 1982, the year of my graduation from Farmington High School.

I was invited by the manager of the unit, the resident psychiatrist, to attend a mental health symposium as a part of the Conversations at the Carter Center series one evening on bipolar disorder and suicide in young Black men. At the time, research and treatment was becoming more readily available on how to treat and respect persons with this condition.

Verinda Birdsong

Also, an alarm was sounding on the number of young Black men of diverse backgrounds who were committing suicide in our communities. I was excited to about the panel who would be present that evening, including actor Rod Steiger and Susan Cronkite, Walter Cronkite’s daughter. I never dreamed I would get a chance to speak to President Jimmy Carter and the First Lady.

Later that early evening, I began with other guests to walk into a beautiful, white-linen dining area. As I began to proceed, the President and his lovely wife met me walking toward the area. He was kind and smiled. I was grinning from ear to ear I’m sure.

The President and Mrs. Carter both greeted me and shook my hand. I told him that my family was from an area close by to Plains, GA. He and Mrs. Carter smiled and said they knew the area well. And there I was in a moment of a lifetime, greeting one of our U.S. Presidents and having dinner.

I cannot explain what a night it was and the euphoria that I felt representing my family and meeting someone who appeared “ordinary” but was “extraordinary” in kindness, generosity and friendliness. He was and is exactly the “homegrown” type of man who should be President of these United States. A man and a woman who was caring “for the least of these” shook my little unknown hand.

After dinner, I was invited to meet the other panel guests including Steiger and Cronkite and to take a picture with staff. A forever memory would now be memorialized with a picture that says, “I was there.” Later, we went into the auditorium where the symposium was held to learn more about the importance of mental health, treatment alternatives and removing the stigma of bipolar disorder conditions and how we as a community can support black men struggling with depression and coming alongside communities now dealing with an epidemic of suicide.

My take-away from the entire event was the magnitude of support that the President and Mrs. Carter provided to those who attended and the work of the Carter Center to present this information to support other mental health professionals and organizations.

The shame of any mental health condition and the support so needed by many to seek and get help is still a priority today. There is help for someone who may be bipolar or suffering from debilitating depression. As a country, we have been God-blessed to have been given a man like Jimmy Carter who truly represents the type of man (or woman) a President of these United States should exemplify.

Verinda Birdsong lives in New Britain.