A life planting health

Amid the din of negativity it can be easy to forget that our community has produced many decent, hard-working, intelligent and selfless people. We note the passing of one such individual earlier this week. The legacy of Clarence Perkins provides proof.

The 18th century German poet and physiognomist, Johann Kaspar Lavater, once wrote, “What do I owe to my times, to my country, to my neighbors, to my friends? Such are the questions which a virtuous man ought often to ask himself.”

To those who knew him, it is clear that Perkins spent a lifetime seeking answers to those questions. Perkins arguably did more to advance the cause of humane and modern mental health care than anyone else in the history of this community, but his reach far exceeded the confines of Pine Bluff.

As reported in The Commercial, Perkins initiated and helped craft most of Arkansas’ mental health legislation. One especially consequent act that Perkins helped draft was the National Mental Health System Act of 1980. During administration of Pres. Jimmy Carter, Perkins traveled to Washington, D.C. to witness Carter signing the document into law.

Perkins’ list of accomplishments, appointments and accolades is considerable. They evidence a life spent in the pursuit of one’s passion. They demonstrate that one person, properly motivated, can change many lives for the better.

While Perkins was well known in these environs, those who labor in similar causes know fame will be the least of their rewards. We might list Dorothea Dix, an early crusader for humane mental health treatment. We could also cite William Battie, an early believer in treating mental illness as disease and advocate for training for nurses and other caregivers of mentally ill; or even Harriet Bailey, who wrote the first nursing textbook to deal with mental health care. None of these are household names. Nonetheless, countless lives were improved because they dared to make a difference. So it was with Perkins.

There is an ancient Greek proverb that states “A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.” In many ways Perkins’ devotion to the cause of improved mental health care reflects this sentiment. He must have known that each small step forward made possible the next. He must have known that success would be measured in the healthy, stable — yet often anonymous — lives of those his efforts assisted. In this, he planted a forest under which a community and a nation could more comfortably and confidently sit.

He must have also known that works such as his are Sisyphean in nature. They are never finished. As one challenge is met, new ones arise. It is the nature of the enterprise. He probably also knew that we have much work to do in de-stigmatizing mental illness. His lifelong work reflects those ongoing challenges — challenges that will require a new champion.

Herein lies Perkins’ real accomplishment, even knowing that his work would never be done, he helped lay the most solid footing possible — a footing upon which his successors could build more comprehensive and effective solutions to the mental health issues we face. For this and so many other things, we offer our deepest thanks.