The humanity we all share.

By Elyn SaksAugust 31, 2012

At TWLOHA, we are passionate about challenging the stigma around mental health issues. While schizophrenia is a mental illness we don’t get to address as often, it is just as misunderstood as more common mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and others. Elyn Saks is one of the more than 2 million Americans who suffer from schizophrenia. But rather than be held back by her diagnosis, she has used her experiences to better the world for those with mental illness. Today, she is a mental health law expert and a professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California. Here, in an excerpt from her recent TED Talk, Elyn shares her thoughts on changing the way mental illness is perceived.


So I’m a woman with chronic schizophrenia. I’ve spent hundreds of days in psychiatric hospitals. I might have ended up spending most of my life on the back ward of a hospital, but that isn’t how my life turned out. In fact, I’ve managed to stay clear of hospitals for almost three decades, perhaps my proudest accomplishment. That’s not to say that I’ve remained clear of all psychiatric struggles.      
As a young woman, I was in a psychiatric hospital on three different occasions for lengthy periods. My doctors diagnosed me with chronic schizophrenia, and gave me a prognosis of “grave.” That is, at best, I was expected to live in a board and care, and work at menial jobs. Fortunately, I did not actually enact that grave prognosis. Instead, I’m a chaired Professor of Law, Psychology and Psychiatry at the USC Gould School of Law, I have many close friends and I have a beloved husband, Will. He’s definitely the star of my show.     
Everything about this illness says I shouldn’t be here, but I am. And I am, I think, for three reasons: First, I’ve had excellent treatment. Four- to five-day-a-week psychoanalytic psychotherapy for decades and continuing, and excellent psychopharmacology. Second, I have many close family members and friends who know me and know my illness. These relationships have given my life a meaning and a depth, and they also helped me navigate my life in the face of symptoms. Third, I work at an enormously supportive workplace at USC Law School. This is a place that not only accommodates my needs but actually embraces them. It’s also a very intellectually stimulating place, and occupying my mind with complex problems has been my best and most powerful and most reliable defense against my mental illness.     
Even with all that — excellent treatment, wonderful family and friends, supportive work environment — I did not make my illness public until relatively late in life, and that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing. If you hear nothing else today, please hear this: There are not “schizophrenics.” There are people with schizophrenia, and these people may be your spouse, they may be your child, they may be your neighbor, they may be your friend, they may be your coworker.     
So let me share some final thoughts. We need to invest more resources into research and treatment of mental illness. The better we understand these illnesses, the better the treatments we can provide, and the better the treatments we can provide, the more we can offer people care, and not have to use force. Also, we must stop criminalizing mental illness. It’s a national tragedy and scandal that the L.A. County Jail is the biggest psychiatric facility in the United States. American prisons and jails are filled with people who suffer from severe mental illness, and many of them are there because they never received adequate treatment. I could have easily ended up there or on the streets myself. A message to the entertainment industry and to the press: On the whole, you’ve done a wonderful job fighting stigma and prejudice of many kinds. Please, continue to let us see characters in your movies, your plays, your columns, who suffer with severe mental illness. Portray them sympathetically, and portray them in all the richness and depth of their experience as people and not as diagnoses.     
The humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not. What those of us who suffer with mental illness want is what everybody wants: in the words of Sigmund Freud, “to work and to love.”     
This blog was adapted with permission. Watch Elyn Saks’ entire TED Talk here.


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