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Elyn Saks: A Woman with Integrity

Updated on August 27, 2014
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Kim is licensed in mental health and addiction counseling. Her education is in business, counseling, and health administration.

Elyn Saks is a legal scholar and mental health-policy advocate whose work and life story are expanding the options for those suffering from severe mental illness.
Elyn Saks is a legal scholar and mental health-policy advocate whose work and life story are expanding the options for those suffering from severe mental illness. | Source

A good friend once told Elyn Saks, “For someone unlucky, you are very lucky.” Elyn has paranoid schizophrenia, as well as some medical conditions that can result from the medications used to treat schizophrenia. Elyn Saks also has a phenomenal career and a best selling book. By publishing her book and “coming out” about her mental illness, she risked her career and is now challenging the status quo in mental health treatment.

Dr. Elyn Saks is professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Southern California. In her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, she shares an unusual perspective as both an expert on mental illness and a sufferer of one of the most severe and debilitating forms of mental illness. She describes symptoms that began to manifest at age 8 and progressed to full blown psychosis while she was a student at Oxford. She describes how she struggled to fulfill her ambitions in spite of her illness. She shares about being advised to forego her ambitions in favor of accommodating her illness; and her belief that this was poor advise that is given all too often to people with mental illness who should instead be encouraged to pursue their dreams and ambitions. She shares about her experiences of being restrained and medicated against her will. Dr. Saks shares how the use of physical restraints is experienced as assaultive and de-humanizing, particularly by patients with rape and trauma histories, and advocates for use of more dignified de-escalation practices.

As a result of her courage and willingness to disclose her illness, other very high functioning and influential people are coming forward to admit to having similar conditions. They are participating in research that will help identify ways these participants have managed their symptoms and achieved success in their careers in spite of their illness. One hopeful outcome of these studies is to identify whether there are some skills that can be taught to others with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders that can help them function at a higher level and achieve a higher standard of living.

Dr Saks was awarded $500,000 by the MacArthur Foundation, an independent foundation that awards creative people and effective institutions that are “committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.” With the award money, she founded the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics. The institute is a think tank that supports innovative ways of thinking about legal and ethical issues in mental health and the delivery of mental health services. The institute has received additional funding to support research and services for people with schizophrenia. The Sydney R. Baer Foundation, an organization that funds cutting-edge research and services supporting people with schizophrenia, awarded an additional $225,000 to the institute. A spokesperson for the Foundation stated, “If we can’t afford to fund her institute, we are not serious about schizophrenia.”

One of the treatments that Dr Saks engages in that she describes as more helpful than medication is daily psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is often referred to as “talk therapy.” There are many forms of “talk therapy” but psychoanalysis is a specific form of therapy that requires its providers, psychoanalysts, to undergo their own psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis occurs several times a week for several years sometimes. Dr. Saks attends sessions five days a week, and has done so for many years.

Psychoanalysis is an expensive form of therapy that most people are not able to afford and is not covered by most health insurance companies. It has not been proven to be best practice for the treatment of schizophrenia. Indeed, without medication a person with schizophrenia would not likely benefit from psychoanalysis. Since she has now studied psychoanalysis herself, perhaps she will pave the way for a form of psychoanalytic treatment that can be more readily applied to the treatment of psychotic disorders, and that can be more affordable to those who would benefit. She is a powerful advocate for mental health parity laws that maintain that funding for mental health treatment should be equal to other forms of medical treatments. Perhaps she will find a way to make it affordable.

Dr. Saks is working on another book, Mad Women: A Most Uncommon Friendship with author Terri Cheney who has written her own memoir titled, Manic: A Memoir. Terri Cheney shares about her experience as a young professional lawyer with bipolar disorder. Her story begins with a rape that occurred in the height of a severe manic episode. Terri advocates that people with bipolar disorder educate themselves about their condition, and she recommends the newsletter from the International Bipolar Foundation for current information about bipolar disorder. In their joint effort the authors will compare and contrast their experiences with their two illnesses.

A single act of courage by a very lucky, unlucky lady has led to a chain of events that is paving the way for a more hopeful future for those with severe mental illness. A lifetime of study and preparation puts her in a powerful position where she is able to influence improvements in treatment through research and through enactment of laws. She has integrated her personal and professional life in a way that gives meaning and purpose to her life. Dr. Saks could have decided to keep her condition a secret and still would have retired with tenure and security. We would never have known. She has integrity as well.


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