Fight the Stigma: Elyn Saks' Battle with Schizophrenia

Elyn Saks is an associate dean and professor of law, psychology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at USC Gould Law school. Diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, she’s spent her life in and out of psychiatric care, but is proud to say she’s avoided hospitalization for the past thirty years.

In this inspiring TED talk, Saks speaks out about her personal experience with her psychosis and how it has affected her life. She discusses the delusions and hallucinations she’s experienced, as well as how her behavior was received by her peers. She mentions several times how others were frightened in her presence, and yet she was the one who thought there was a man standing behind her with a raised knife. 

“Imagine having a nightmare while you’re awake,” she says.

While Saks believes in the effectiveness of treatment, she does not condone the kind of force that was used on her. This is a major issue when it comes to the treatment of mental illness. Partly the fault of the stigma, people with a mental illness are often assumed to be dangerous and are therefore often constrained upon initial hospitalization. Not only is this unjust, but it reduces the percent of people who actually seek treatment for their illness.

Saks calls society to stop criminalizing mental illness. Stigma has created a misguided reputation of mental illness as violent and criminal, when that is not the case. In many ways, the media contributes to this criminalization, and that’s why TED talks like this one are so important. It’s a way the media is beginning to break the mental health stigma.

Finally, another very important point Saks makes is to remember that “there are not schizophrenics; there are only people with schizophrenia.” Stigma has soaked through so much of our culture that many people so often unintentionally use offensive language like this, unknowingly defining the person as their illness.

Saks says “the humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness that we may not.” This sort of awareness is critical for fighting the mental health stigma. Mental illness is not uncommon. Treatment should be therapeutic and not scarring. We wouldn’t shun someone who just found out they have cancer, so why do we treat people with schizophrenia any differently?