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'Because people are scared' 

A Little Rock couple support psychiatry with money — and their names.

It was by no means a given that the new Brain Imaging Research Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences would bear the names of Helen L. Porter and James T. Dyke, the couple whose contribution of $1.5 million helped to build it. They intended for their contribution to be anonymous.

But Dr. G. Richard Smith, the director of the school's Psychiatric Research Institute, pressed the couple to allow their names to appear on the building. "He felt it was important to show that people in this community weren't afraid to be associated with psychiatry."

"We understood," Porter says. "Because people are scared. Perhaps of all the kinds of illnesses, people are most afraid of having a mental illness.

"If you have cancer, you can get chemotherapy, radiation, and so forth. But they think, 'If you have a brain disease or mental illness, what do you do?' There's a kind of panic and helplessness."

Porter knew that sense of helplessness well. "When I was growing up," she says, "my own mother would say to me that psychiatrists are crazy and people who go to them get no help."

Like many people, her mother saw mental illness or emotional suffering as essentially a character flaw. Porter recalls, "She had a friend who was depressed, and she would say, 'If she would get up and get out of the house, she would get over it.' My mother had no idea what that woman was dealing with."

Porter admits that she herself was in the dark about the possible ravages of trauma when, years ago, she and her husband learned that one of their three sons, then aged 10, was being sexually abused by a teacher. They dealt decisively with the situation, then, never thinking that their son might need help, expected life to return to normal.

But "normal" was not to be. The boy began using marijuana as a teenager, and eventually, Porter says, "alcohol and drugs became his medications."

"We were so naive, so ignorant back then," she reflects. "We had no idea how to deal with it. Over the years he went through about 10 rehab clinics. And, of course, by that time, I'd gotten a lot of therapy too."

Finally, their son went to what is now the PRI at UAMS. He got the help he needed, and Porter says, "He's great now. He's been sober for three years."

She credits her son's and her family's ordeal with teaching her, as she puts it, "that what goes on in your brain can make you sick. For example, the experience of sexual abuse can make a person not able to function in society."

She also learned, as she puts it, that, "Every family's got something. Whether it's a child with an eating disorder, or someone suffering with anxiety or depression, or someone coming back from a war with post-traumatic stress."

Still, many families guard such problems as unspeakable, much, Porter says, as when she was young, people would lower their voices to speak the word "cancer." Porter and her husband agreed to lend their names to the new brain research building as a way of saying that it's time for that era to end.

"There are plenty of people doing research on things like aging, heart disease and cancer," she says. "But we know so little about the brain. We wanted to help fund this center because we think it's just so hopeful."

Her family's experience also made Porter an advocate of the kind of psychiatry being practiced at PRI. "Have you seen the building?" she asks.

"It's got all that glass out front. The interior is so open. And there's that beautiful sweeping stairway. They acknowledge mental illness, but that place is about mental health.

"Everything about it says, 'There's nothing to be ashamed of here.' Of course, there's patient confidentiality, but the message is that this is not something to be hidden. You don't have to be ashamed if your life is not going well. You can be seen. And you can get help."

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