A Tale of Mental Illness – from the inside – Elyn Saks

ceci ce n’est pas “un schizophrenic “




Elyn Saks delivers a powerful and courageous TED talk.

“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 wards 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 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.

You may find the nex  few minutes of Elyn Saks’ talk difficult to sit with, I did.

Likely, necessarily working to bring her audience into her own space she gives the textbook description of “schizophrenia” that leads to the very prognosis her own life and story itself debunks.

Next, seeking to illustrate, she mis-steps big time…

“Everyone has seen a street person,unkempt, probably ill-fed,standing outside of an office building mutteringto himself or shouting.This person is likely to have some form of schizophrenia”

Way to go Elyn: a diagnosis for dummies: 101 masterclass. forgive her, she’s trying to illustrate how she is much the same, could have found herself in this life too.

Elyn Saks is also very much for psychiatry, [well, she is a psych prof ] accepts totally her diagnosis  as a “brain disease”   as she has said elsewhere, ” because it makes my life easier.”

But if you do find it difficult, it pays to hang in  there or FFWD because when she gets to her own story she  tosses with deft and precision gert handfuls of dynamite into our society’s acceptance of how people with mental illness are too often treated .

Elyn Saks is a fierce and effective advocate for treatment, but against force and against the labelling of people as their diagnosis.

“There are no ‘schizophrenics’ there are people who have ‘schizophrenia’.”

She talks about …

…her own experience of psychosis – “because everybody goes psychotic in their own way”.

…how contrary to popular understanding schizophrenia is not multiple personalities – how in schizophrenia her mind is not “split” but shattered.

….meds, taking them,  coming off, and how she came to decide  life was better with them, the help she gets from family and friends noticing and dealing with “symptoms” and the importance of having something worthwhile to occupy her brain: to maintain her focus.

…the support she recieves from her family and especially her husband “he’s the real star in my story”; of the daily psychoanalsis and support from a nurturing and accepting work environment she found herself in as a Law professor at Harvard [very much like John Nash found at Princeton] .

So,  now we know one way that  works… daily psychoanalysis, supportive family relationships meaningful work  to engage the mind – and a prestigious chair at one of the world’s top univerities?…

….sorted, eh?

Elyn Saks ends her courageous talk by sharing these thoughts and wishes…

Understanding, treatment, non use of force

“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.

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 stigmaand 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.

“Recently, a friend posed a question: If there were a pill I could take that would instantly cure me, would I take it? The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was offered psychoanalysis. He declined, saying, “Don’t take my devils away,because my angels may flee too.” My psychosis, on the other hand, is a waking nightmare in which my devils are so terrifying that all my angels have already fled. So would I take the pill? In an instant.

The humanity we all share is more important than the illness we may not.

“That said, I don’t wish to be seen as regretting the life I could have had if I’d not been mentally ill, nor am I asking anyone for their pity. What I rather wish to say is that 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.”


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