Friday, December 2, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Elyn Saks on her schizophrenia "Please do send flowers"

Elyn Saks had a family, a successful career as a University of Southern California law professor, and a secret: She's a schizophrenic. And while her condition is well-managed with a combination of psychotherapy and medication, she wanted to let the secret out, against the advice of her family, friends and colleagues. She went ahead, anyway, in order to reduce the stigma and secrecy around schizophrenia, publishing The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.

But after decades of hiding her condition, it was the speaking tour for the book that really made her career take off. As this New York Times profile notes, her courage in speaking publicly about her condition actually helped move research on it forward:
For psychiatric science, the real payoff was her speaking tour. At mental health conferences here and abroad, Dr. Saks, 56, attracted not only doctors and therapists, but also high-functioning people with the same diagnosis as herself — a fellowship of fans, some of whom have volunteered to participate in studies. “People in the audience would stand up and self-disclose, or sometimes I would be on a panel with someone” who had a similar experience, Dr. Saks said. She also received scores of e-mails from people who had read the book and wanted to meet for lunch. She told many of them about the possibility of participating in a research project. She now has two studies going, one in Los Angeles and another in San Diego, tracking the routines and treatment decisions of these extraordinary people. The movie producer Jerry Weintraub has optioned the book.
The book became a best-seller and Saks later was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants, with which she began a research institute. She continues to speak out about the stigma of mental illness, as she does in the speech below in which she's accepting one of her many awards, this time from the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • When your message involves stigma, invoke the ordinary: The taboo topic, by definition, is foreign to your listeners because they've been avoiding it. Speakers can make it familiar and manageable for an audience by breaking it down to ordinary situations and behaviors--as Saks does early on and at the end of her speech, when she urges the audience to visit or send flowers to friends hospitalized for mental illness, something most people avoid. At the very end of her speech, it's a sweet reminder of a practical thing they can do.
  • Know your audience: Saks's overall message in most of her speeches involves giving the audience members practical things they can do to accept and help family and friends with psychiatric illnesses. In this audience, she pays particular attention to mental health professionals--those working for the center that's giving her the award--but also speaks directly to those in the audience who aren't working for the field. Each one can do something, and her entire speech is clear enough that anyone can understand it, a nod to the fact that she's not just addressing technical experts.
  • Use contrasts and comparisons to make a foreign subject clear: Saks compares physical illness, a topic both familiar and more comfortable, with mental illness to illustrate stigma and public reaction: "No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or a broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that or imply that all the time about people with mental illness." 
What do you think of this famous speech?



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