What would you do with $500,000 and no strings attached?
For USC Gould School of Law professor and associate dean Elyn Saks, the recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” the answer was simple.
Like anyone in her position, Saks had fleeting thoughts about burning through the money herself.
“I could go to the French Riviera, drinking wine and eating wonderful cheese for a few years,” she once thought. “But I wanted to do something useful.”
Instead of indulging in summer soirées on the Mediterranean, the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences used some of the money to establish a center on mental health policy that she hopes will become the best of its kind.
And so was born the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics.
The institute will spotlight one important mental health issue per academic year. For 2010-11, it will focus on the use of mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals.
Each fall, one or more experts on that year’s topic will give a Distinguished Lecture. In the spring, the institute will host a symposium where Saks hopes to develop model laws and policy recommendations. Cambridge University Press has expressed interest in publishing each year’s proceedings.
Headquartered at USC Law, the Saks Institute is a collaborative effort that includes faculty members from 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,” Saks said. “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 assembled a who’s who among mental health experts to serve on the institute’s external board, including Oliver Sacks, Kitty Dukakis and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel.
“I’m very excited about that,” Saks said.
Five or six USC Gould students each year will play an active role at the institute. Along with students from other participating disciplines at USC, the students will conduct the background research necessary to frame the study of that year’s topic.
Research may include everything from reviewing literature and case-studying specific organizations to analyzing relevant laws and working on a 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, with the possibility of their work being published.
Saks has seen the impact that similar mental health organizations around the country have had, including the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University and the Therapeutic Jurisprudence Center at the University of Miami. She believes the Saks Institute’s wide focus and unique format can make it a leader in the field.
“I hope it will become the ‘go-to’ organization for certain mental health law and ethical issues for other people around the country,” she said.