USC's Saks shares her personal "journey through madness" at 12th annual Evelyn Lee Lecture

By Nicholas Roznovsky

"I'm going to be speaking this afternoon about people with schizophrenia, not about 'schizophrenics.' The difference is more than semantic. Words matter."

With that important and powerful statement, legal scholar and mental health policy advocate Elyn R. Saks, JD, PhD, began her delivery of the 12th annual Dr. Evelyn Lee Lecture on Cultural Competence and Diversity on April 18, 2017, at UCSF's Parnassus campus. In front of a room filled with UCSF clinicians, researchers, and trainees, she shared the story of her battle with chronic schizophrenia, the condition which nearly ended her undergraduate studies at Oxford and continued to plague her throughout law school and the early stages of her career.

"There were, in a way of speaking, three 'me's': Elyn, Professor Saks, and the lady in the medical charts, a psych patient," she explained to the audience. "I could not integrate these three aspects of myself."

"How could I be a thinker of big thoughts, a professor, if my mind were so damaged? How could I be both Professor Saks and the lady in the medical charts? And where did Elyn fit in all this?"

Over the course of her speech, Saks told a harrowing tale about psychotic episodes, hospitalization experiences, her reluctance to take her prescriptions, and how she eventually found a way to embrace "the three Elyns" with the help of therapy, medication, and supportive colleagues and friends.

Saks' work and life story have expanded the options for those suffering from severe mental illness. Trained at Oxford in philosophy, at Yale in jurisprudence, and the New Center for Psychoanalysis in psychoanalytic science, Saks is recognized by mental health professionals and legal scholars alike as an important contributor to national debates on mental health policy. She has played a major role in discussions of mental health law, patients’ rights, and multiple-personality disorder, including such issues as involuntary commitment, competency to be executed, proxy consent, and the right to refuse treatment.

Saks speaking to crowd

"I think we need to educate people—educate the public, educate the press—about language because language is important; it has an effect," Saks told the audience when asked about destigmatizing mental illness.  [Photo: Nicholas Roznovsky]

She is currently the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry, and the Behavioral Sciences at the USC Gould School of Law; Director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics; Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine; and a faculty member at the New Center for Psychoanalysis. She served as USC Law's associate dean for research from 2005-2010 and also teaches at the Keck School of Medicine.

Her contributions and commitment to mental health law took on a personal dimension with the publication of her 2007 memoir, "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness," in which she made public for the first time her lifelong struggle with schizophrenia, including severe episodes of psychosis as well as experiences with misguided or harmful treatments. She has won numerous honors, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

Saks used her funds from the MacArthur Fellowship to create the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at USC, a think tank that studies issues at the intersection of law, mental health, and ethics.

Her remarks concluded with a firm statement of the importance of understanding and acceptance for mental health patients: "We are your sisters, your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your colleagues, and your friends," Saks told the audience. "We want, in the words of Sigmund Freud, what everyone wants—to work and to love."

Following her lecture at Parnassus, Saks also spoke to department members at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital & Trauma Center (ZSFG) and the San Francisco VA Medical Center. 

The annual Dr. Evelyn Lee Visiting Scholar Lecture in Cultural Competency and Diversity is sponsored by the UCSF Department of Psychiatry Diversity Committee in remembrance of Evelyn Lee, EdD, who served as a clinical faculty member for more than twenty years before her passing in 2003. In addition to her work at UCSF and ZSFG, Lee served as executive director of San Francisco-area mental health agency Richmond Area Multi-Services and authored more than 30 publications fostering cultural competence and cross-cultural communication in mental health.

About UCSF Psychiatry

The UCSF Department of Psychiatry and the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute are among the nation's foremost resources in the fields of child, adolescent, adult, and geriatric mental health. Together they constitute one of the largest departments in the UCSF School of Medicine and the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, with a mission focused on research (basic, translational, clinical), teaching, patient care and public service.

UCSF Psychiatry conducts its clinical, educational and research efforts at a variety of locations in Northern California, including UCSF campuses at Parnassus Heights, Mission Bay and Laurel Heights, UCSF Medical Center, UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, the San Francisco VA Health Care System and UCSF Fresno.

About the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, established by the extraordinary generosity of Joan and Sanford I. "Sandy" Weill, brings together world-class researchers with top-ranked physicians to solve some of the most complex challenges in the human brain.

The UCSF Weill Institute leverages UCSF’s unrivaled bench-to-bedside excellence in the neurosciences. It unites three UCSF departments—Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neurological Surgery—that are highly esteemed for both patient care and research, as well as the Neuroscience Graduate Program, a cross-disciplinary alliance of nearly 100 UCSF faculty members from 15 basic-science departments, as well as the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, a multidisciplinary research center focused on finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

About UCSF

UC San Francisco (UCSF) is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. It also includes UCSF Health, which comprises top-ranked hospitals – UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland – and other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.