Law professor, mental health patient and advocate

USC Gould School of Law • September 27, 2011
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Elyn Saks gives “Spirit of the Law” talk

Lori Craig

Prof. Elyn Saks has battled both her own mental illness and the stigma that comes with it since she was eight years old. But she has a powerful weapon in her arsenal: the law.

Prof. Elyn Saks
 Prof. Elyn Saks presented as part of the
 "Spirit of the Law" speaker series.

Her career path is rooted in her personal experiences as a psychiatric patient subjected to the intimidating side of being treated for mental illness – in her case, schizophrenia – but who came to flourish, thanks to psychotherapy and proper medication.

“Once I stopped struggling against having an illness, it came to define me less,” Saks said.

She discussed the relationship between her personal struggle and her professional interests during a Sept. 22 lunchtime event, “Spirit of the Law,” a speaker series featuring legal professionals discussing how they find meaning, purpose and identity in the law; how they use their law degrees in creative and innovative ways; and how they connect the personal and the professional in their lives. The series is sponsored by the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Office of Religious Life.

Saks experienced her first symptoms of mental illness at the age of eight, but it wasn’t until she was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University that she had her first full-blown episode. She had another breakdown while a student at Yale Law School, after which she ended up forcibly restrained and forced to take anti-psychotic medication.

After graduating law school, she got a legal services job before entering academia, and she joined USC in 1989.

“At USC, I couldn’t have found a warmer, more supportive, more intellectually stimulating place,” said Saks, the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences. “USC has been amazing for me.”

Saks emphasized how important invigorating personal and professional environments are to managing her illness. Intensive psychotherapy, supportive friends, and an active and stimulating workplace help to calm and focus her mind, she said. That’s why she can be found in her USC Law office seven days a week.

In her professional life, Saks, has advocated on behalf of patients with mental illness, teaches law students about mental health law and the criminal justice system, and produces scholarship focusing on the rights of people with mental illness. She recently obtained a Ph.D. in psychoanalytic science from the New Center for Psychoanalysis.

Saks in 2009 was selected as a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, receiving a $500,000 “genius grant.” With it, she created the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics, which spotlights one important mental health issue per academic year and is a collaborative effort that includes faculty from seven USC departments: law, psychiatry, psychology, social work, gerontology, philosophy and engineering.

“We hope to become the go-to place for policymakers who want to study these issues,” Saks said.

It wasn’t until she published her memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” in 2007 that Saks went public with her mental illness.

“Coming out has encouraged others to come out,” she said. “I feel honored that some students feel comfortable confiding in me their issues. USC is very focused on diversity and mental health is a part of that … and I’m proud to have a role in that.”

Responding to questions from students, Saks discussed the process of writing her memoir, the current research being conducted by her institute, and her reaction to receiving the genius grant (she hugged her husband and cried).

Looking to the future of mental health services, Saks noted that there is less stigma and more openness and understanding with regard to mental health issues.

However, “in a way, it’s getting worse because resources are much less across the board, so resources for mental health are much less,” she said, noting that some patients are receiving a fraction of the therapy she has received. “I sort of have a little bit of survivor’s guilt because we need to invest in the system because I believe there is hope for people, if we can only provide access.”

In discussing best practices in mental health services, Saks pointed to the Mental Health America Village in Long Beach that provides an integrated services approach, providing all the services and support individuals need in one place. She also said that her former psychotherapist in England sees half of his patients in their homes, saving the cost of institutionalization.

“Why don’t we do that here?” she said. “Is it the money? Is it the will? Is it the fear? I just think that’s an amazing model and it would be great if we could implement it here.”

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