Trailblazer Elyn Saks sees ‘gender-inspired mental health activism happening all the time now’
TITLE IX: The USC Gould School of Law professor is the founder and faculty director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics.
Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the academic year.
When Professor Elyn Saks was a college student in the mid-1970s, she was in the minority. At Vanderbilt University, where she studied philosophy with a minor in ancient Greek and graduated as valedictorian, 28% of students were women undergraduates. At the University of Oxford, where she earned a master’s degree in philosophy on a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, one-third of the students were women — and all of her professors were men.
Saks had the full support of her parents — “There was never any sense that as a woman I could not earn multiple degrees and have a good career,” she said — and she recognizes that when she was hired as a professor at the USC Gould School of Law in 1989, she was on a path that had been forged by Title IX, passed in 1972.
“Title IX is an extremely important law that changed the rights of women, and others, to participate fully in government, work and education,” Saks said. “When I started working at Gould in 1989, we were aware of the rights and interests of all groups. Since that time, it is great to see that more women are professors and students at USC.”
Saks, founder and faculty director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, went on to Yale Law School. During this time, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which presented the greatest personal challenge of her life, eventually guiding her toward a distinguished career in mental health advocacy and scholarship. That includes writing the groundbreaking 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, which earned wide acclaim and made the New York Times Best Sellers list. In 2009, Saks was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, aka the “genius grant,” which she used to launch the Saks Institute.
Saks’ interdisciplinary career intersects fields of law, public policy, and mental health research and advocacy, which is no surprise considering her life experiences.
Finding her calling
Diagnosed with depression while at Vanderbilt, Saks’ symptoms became more intense at Oxford. Her studies were interrupted by a monthslong stay in a psychiatric hospital, which she kept from her family for fear of worrying them. While hospitalized, she realized that being alone in a hospital room did not improve her condition. Studying and being with friends anchored her. Saks’ doctors agreed and let her get back to her studies at Oxford.
After earning her master’s degree, Saks, who had considered pursuing philosophy but realized her analytic thinking processes were more suited to law, began law school at Yale. Saks says her knowledge of Title IX became more prominent while at Yale, which is when she had returned to the states after five years. “Yale Law was also very keyed into civil rights and civil liberties,” Saks said. “It was common knowledge that Yale Law students went on to become professors or public interest lawyers.” Saks began incorporating mental illness topics into her student papers. One of the first was about how painful and degrading mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals were. She was shocked at her professor’s reaction to the paper.
“He said, ‘You don’t understand, Elyn. These people are psychotic. They don’t experience restraints as we would,’” she said. “It was only by ‘othering’ us that this professor could feel OK about doing to us what he never would want done to himself or loved ones.”
At Yale, Saks was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. From her 2012 TED Talk, “A Tale of Mental Illness,” she mentions her “grave” prognosis as a woman with schizophrenia was not hopeful, according to the doctors. “At best, I was expected to live in a board-and-care [facility] and work menial jobs,” Saks said.
A community of support
Saks says mental illness treatment has certainly changed over time. For years, many women could be institutionalized for simply standing up for themselves or being “difficult.” Saks was fortunate that her family and friends believed in her abilities and supported her efforts to treat her mental illness and succeed academically.
“Many women were put in hospitals by their husbands for terrible reasons,” Saks said. “When I developed serious mental illness and was expressing pessimism about my future life and career, my father’s response was that people with serious cancer overcome their prognosis, and there was no reason to think I couldn’t overcome mine.”
After receiving her law degree, Saks worked as a staff attorney at a legal services agency in Connecticut but found it unfulfilling. She decided that her goal was to become a law professor.
“I truly enjoy introducing the next generation of students to the joys of thinking and writing about important societal issues,” Saks stated. “As a law professor, you can choose what you spend your time on. I love writing books and articles in my area of law and mental health.” When Saks joined the USC faculty in 1989, the university had only six female law school professors. As of 2022, there were 26 female professors.
Fighting mental health stigma
The Saks Institute is a think tank that studies issues at the intersection of law, mental health and ethics. The Saks Scholars, a yearly cohort of graduate students from various USC schools, spotlight one important mental health issue per academic year in a collaborative effort with faculty. Even within the institute, Saks has seen a decrease in mental health stigma over the years, which promotes more positive and open discussion about mental illness.
Because of Title IX, I believe things are getting better.
Elyn Saks, USC Gould
“Over 10 years, 80% of the Saks Scholars had disclosed in their application that they or a loved one had mental illness. When we first met as a group and we went around the room to discuss why they wanted to be a scholar, only one person self-disclosed,” Saks said. “Quite surprising for law students who were about rights, liberty and dignity. But, within the last year, almost everyone self-disclosed, including one woman who said she’d never mentioned to anyone that she had bipolar I with psychotic features.”
Saks is also encouraged by changes in terms of gender equality.
“Because of Title IX, I believe things are getting better. We see that in my area of research, mental health and mental health law,” Saks said. “We see gender-inspired mental health activism happening all the time now.”
More stories about: Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Faculty, Mental Health, Title IX