Elyn Saks (center), her husband Will (right of Elyn), Cyrus the author (left of Elyn) and other attendees from the FH community
Authentic. Real. Down-to-earth. These were my immediate impressions of Professor Elyn Saks and of her husband, Will. Elyn was invited to Fountain House to present an award to Dr. Ralph Aquila for his 20 years of service to our members and to the mental health community. She was asked to meet with a group of members, colleagues, staff, and friends prior to that event. Here is my view of that discussion.
After Jeff Aron’s wonderful introduction, Elyn immediately asked for us to go around the room and introduce ourselves, which not only put everyone at ease, but helped open the floor to a more in-depth talk. Interestingly, all of the members were keen to learn more about not only her writing itself, but the process she underwent to complete her book, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.
I think all of us expressed gratitude to her for her very public stance on her experiences with chronic schizophrenia, both in her book, as well as numerous media appearances, such as the TED Talk in 2012. She laid out for us the source of her recovery and success. There were three main areas she talked about.
The first part of recovery was recognizing not only the need for her to take medication but also for regular, weekly sessions of psychoanalysis. The second component was the tremendous support of family and friends. And the third component was having a work environment that was also extremely supportive and helpful.
It is here that I can compare my own experiences with mental illness - in my case it is manic-depression, otherwise diagnosed as Bipolar I - to hers. For me, it is very important to have the right and proper medication and therapy and the support of family, friends, employers and co-workers, but I also need something else that I believe Elyn would agree with. (She did later in the course of the discussion.) That is having a community like Fountain House, which provides what I consider the “fourth leg” of recovery to help maintain both mental and physical health, and an environment that focuses on the member’s strengths and not the illness.
In closing, Elyn said that she believes the following: we need to provide more research for effective and safe medical treatments in order to improve the lives of individuals who live with the challenges of severe mental illness. Next, we must stop criminalizing mental illness. And lastly, we should encourage both the entertainment industry and media to provide better and more accurate portrayals of mental illness to combat stigma and show “the humanity we all share.”
Thank you Elyn and Will for your honesty, integrity, and a great sense of humor, and for showing me and others that we are not alone in this battle.
Education Unit, Fountain House