Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife of 69 years, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, have been to 146 countries at last count.

And everywhere they go, “I guarantee you the main thing she wants to talk about is mental health,” the peanut farmer-turned-world leader told a packed auditorium at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night.

And when the Steel Magnolia fell ill following a 16-hour flight back from Dubai, the 39th president took her place in Gainesville on Tuesday to deliver the message she had written to the mental health workers and students who had come to hear her speak.

The event was organized by the Accent Speakers Bureau and co-sponsored by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the Gainesville Opportunity Center. When he gave a shoutout to the Opportunity Center, the audience cheered.

“I know all of you are disappointed my wife could not be here,” Carter said, adding that he was excited to have a chance to talk about her work. “Rosalynn has been working on mental health issues for 44 years.”

Her interest started when he was governor of Georgia, and blossomed when he became president, Carter said. He appointed her to lead a committee on mental health, which eventually led to the creation and passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.

“Almost all the (mental health) initiatives I started as president have been put into effect,” Carter said.

Two years after they left the White House, the Carters founded the Carter Center, where Rosalynn created and chaired the Mental Health Task Force.

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