USC Gould School of Law Professor Elyn Saks saw her expansive legal work in the mental health industry pay off — literally. The MacArthur Foundation selected Saks as a 2009 fellow, giving her $500,000 and no restrictions on what she could spend it on.
Saks has decided to use a portion of her winnings to create the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, a research-based facility that will use a legal lens to focus on critical issues in mental health.
“I am totally honored and so gratified to be able to bring people interested in this issue together,” Saks said.
Faculty members from seven different university departments plan to contribute to the institute’s investigations. Participating departments include psychiatry, psychology, social work, gerontology, philosophy, engineering and law.
With its headquarters at the law school, the institute will feature lectures from mental health experts in the fall semester followed by a spring symposium aimed at producing innovative laws and policies that would expand the rights of mental health patients. The institute will then publish its findings and recommendations for reform.
Saks was one of 24 recipients of the genius grant — the fellowship’s informal name — which the MacArthur Foundation annually awards to individuals who display “exceptional creativity” and “manifest promise for important future advances.”
The foundation evaluates candidates on the significance and scope of their achievements. Saks has published numerous scholarly articles and books, including her 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early 20s, Saks possesses the perspective of a patient as well as the legal knowledge of a professional.
According to the MacArthur Foundation’s recipient descriptions, Saks’ firsthand experiences make her an “important contributor to national debates on mental health policy.”
“Saks is a terrific scholar and the ideal person to start this institution,” said Scott Altman, the vice dean of Gould.
Law professor Michael Shapiro, a colleague of Saks’ and a member of her institute’s executive board said she can offer her varied expertise to the institute.
Saks has “a view from everywhere; she is a scholar, teacher, patient and psychologist,” he said.
Shapiro said he believes this unique perspective will set Saks’ institute apart from others.
Saks plans to use her institute to help spread ethical awareness among lawmakers and the general community.
A chief priority will be “getting [patients] rights to refuse treatment and rights to receive expensive treatment,” she said.
The Saks Institute will welcome students to participate in this ongoing project. They will have the opportunity to perform background research, receive stipends and possibly publish their work.
Mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals will be the institute’s first topic of concern for the current academic year.
Ultimately, Saks said she hopes to discover how to convince mental health patients to want treatment, so that there will be no need for legal protections against force-feeding and physical restraints.
“It’s a wonderful addition to USC,” said Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology. “Saks’ vision and foresight should be commended.”