Elyn Saks is an incredibly accomplished woman with a resume that absolutely astounds me. In addition to receiving her law degree from Yale, she is a professor of multiple subjects, is associate dean of research at USC, an honorary Doctor of Law, and received the “Genius Grant” which she used to create the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics. Elyn also happens to suffer from chronic schizophrenia, a mental illness characterized by its hallmarks of delusions and hallucinations. The stereotype associated with the illness is one of an unaccomplished individual, institutionalized or otherwise unaccomplished, and—indeed—this is the prognosis doctors gave her when she was first diagnosed.
It’s then fitting her proudest accomplishments is staying out of psychiatric hospitals for thirty years; however, this isn’t to say her life was a walk in the park. For instance, the way she describes her experiences throughout law school are recounted in a horribly visceral way. I felt like I was experiencing her delusions of having murdered millions of people or her hallucinations of men with knives right alongside her. All of this while getting a law degree, too. (I can barely make it by with depression—I can’t even fathom something of schizophrenia’s scale.)
Graphic too were her descriptions of her various hospitalizations. On one occasion, she was forced onto a metal table and strapped to it until she was completely immobilized. Later, she was involuntarily hospitalized. On another occasion, Elyn was left up to twenty hours in restraints despite posing no harm—which she rightfully deems a form of dehumanizing torture since you are disregarding a human being’s volition. As a result, she naturally wanted to be rid of her illness and began quitting her medication because “the less medicine, the less defective,” but this only led to a direr psychotic episode, after which she acknowledged the illness was not something she could continue to hide from. This is a critical moment in any mentally ill person’s life since I think it the choice to tackle the problem head on instead of dance around its edges.. From personal experience, the mind responds better to a good slap and challenge than hesitance. Commitment is needed.
Elyn asserts her success is due to three factors.
First, she’s the recipient of excellent treatment, going to psychotherapy four to five times a week for the past few decades.
Second, she’s been blessed with an extensive network of close, supportive friends and family members who are aware of her illness. This reportedly gives her a depth to life and aides her through the rough patches.
Third, she cites a supportive workplace which embraces her needs and offers intellectual stimulation. Again, from personal experience, having a workplace be responsive to your concerns is incredibly validating, releasing a huge amount of pressure.
Despite this, Elyn didn’t disclose her diagnosis to the public until fairly recently due to the fear of the illness’ extremely negative stigma. Rightfully so since schizophrenia is one of those very, very misunderstood mental conditions. Many people automatically go to slasher-films or psychological thrillers which feature (misrepresented) characters with disorders alluding to schizophrenia. Indeed, my idea of the typical person with schizophrenia’s life comes from two sources: my grandma’s adult daycare business and the 2009 movie, The Soloist. In The Soloist, for instance, a man with schizophrenia drops out of Julliard after a series of psychotic episodes and is left to roam the streets until a journalist discovers his talent and tries—rather unsuccessfully—to get him back on track. This paints people with schizophrenia in a very helpless light, as if they had little willpower or choice to do much of anything and were instead completely consumed by their psychosis. My concept of this certainly wasn’t aided by spending part of my childhood around my grandma’s daycare business. The idea behind it is families send their mentally incapacitated adult sons or daughters there whenever they need a break for the day. It’s a beneficial thing for both parties, but it unfortunately means my perception of those with chronic schizophrenia was skewed since we typically only received those with severe, untreatable psychosis. This TED Talk really helped open my eyes. What an incredible woman.
Elyn Saks. (2016, January 29). Retrieved May 12, 2016, from http://gould.usc.edu/about/contact/faculty/contactinfo.cfm?detailid=300
Elyn Saks: A tale of mental illness – from the inside [Video file]. (2012, June). Retrieved May 12, 2016, from https://www.ted.com/talks/elyn_saks_seeing_mental_illness?language=en