USC professor underwrites new institute on law and mental health
|Los Angeles, CA — Elyn Saks, recipient of a 2009 MacArthur
Foundation “genius grant” and author of a memoir chronicling her
battle with schizophrenia, has launched a center on mental
health policy at USC Gould School of Law.
The Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics is funded with a portion of the $500,000, no-strings-attached award Saks received from the MacArthur Foundation.
The institute will spotlight one important mental health issue per academic year, and each fall, experts on the topic will give a Distinguished Lecture. In the spring, the Institute will host a symposium at which Saks hopes policy recommendations and model laws can be developed. Cambridge University Press has expressed interest in publishing each year’s proceedings.
This year, the focus will be on the use of mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals. A Nov. 11 symposium will feature guest speakers Paul Appelbaum, MD, a nationally respected professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia University; Susan Stefan, JD, a leading authority on mental health law and the Americans with Disabilities Act; and Kathi Stringer, an advocate for people with mental illness and someone who has experienced mechanical restraints herself.
“I wanted the subject of mechanical restraints to be the first area we highlighted because it is important—many people die in restraints each year and many more are degraded and traumatized—and there is momentum to try to reduce their use. I myself was mechanically restrained while hospitalized for mental illness—many times and for long periods of time—and I had nightmares about it for years after,” said Saks, the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at USC.
After decades of hiding her illness, Saks published a memoir in 2007 about her battle with schizophrenia in "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness" (Hyperion, 2007). The memoir received rave reviews and worldwide acclaim.
The Saks Institute, headquartered at USC Law, is a collaborative effort that includes faculty members across seven USC departments: law, psychiatry, psychology, social work, gerontology, philosophy and engineering. Future topics may include coercion in psychiatric research, mental illness and veterans, and the criminalization of mental illness, among others.
“I’m very, very interested in these issues,” said Saks. “The idea of having a whole group of people study and work together on an important project is great for me and I think it will be good for the field.”
Saks has already assembled a who’s who among mental health experts to consult or serve on the Institute’s external board, including Oliver Sacks, Kitty Dukakis and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel.
“It’s a great external board and I’m very excited about that,” Saks said.
Five or six USC Law students each year also will play an active role with the Institute, along with students from other participating disciplines at USC. These students will conduct the background research necessary to frame the study of each year’s topic.
Research may include everything from reviewing literature to case-studying specific organizations to analyzing relevant laws and statutes, along with doing comparative study of other countries. Students affiliated with the Institute will receive the title of “USC Law and Mental Health Scholar.” They also will receive a stipend and there is the potential for their work to be published.
“I hope the Saks Institute will become the ‘go-to’ organization for certain mental health law and ethical issues for other people around the country,” she said.