Was the Beautiful Mind Sick?

Hollywood's Dubious Contribution to Public Education about Mental Illness

A Beautiful Mind has economics as its background. The foreground is reserved for mental illness and its treatment. As the movie tells the story, John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who arrogantly alienates the people around him, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, which in his case has him hallucinating about a nonexistent roommate and a government intelligence agent who hires him to find and decipher the secret codes the Soviets are placing in popular magazines and newspapers. His behavior becomes erratic and discomforting to others.

Eventually, Nash is locked a mental hospital against his will, subjected to brutal insulin shock and put on Thorazine. When released from the hospital he only pretends to take his medicine; he actually hides the pills in his desk, presumably because when he takes them he can’t work or even interact with his infant son. The drug’s interference with his ability to think is apparently unacceptable for a man who is determined to make a name for himself in mathematics. His hallucinations return, and once again he is “working” for a government spy agency. When his wife, Alicia, discovers this, she calls his psychiatrist. But instead of having Nash committed to the hospital again, she joins him in his resolution to beat the illness on his own. With her loving support he resumes his career and succeeds in ignoring the characters who inhabit his hallucinatory world. They eventually fade away. Inexplicably, while a colleague interviews him in 1994 to determine if he is stable enough to accept the Nobel Prize in economics without incident, Nash says, “I’m taking the newer drugs.” (We never see him take these drugs.)

The movie has been hailed by self-styled advocates for the mentally ill. Before it was released, the executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), Richard C. Birkel said, “As an Oscar contender, the movie has the potential to contribute significantly to broader public education about mental illness.” Birkel conceded that “Hollywood takes dramatic license,” but added, “What is important is how mental illness is presented within the overall plot.” A NAMI news release added, like a mantra, “Mental illnesses are brain disorders.”

Gets It Wrong

But like the economics, the movie got many facts about Nash and mental illness wrong. That makes its contribution to public education about mental illness dubious. Considering the distortions and omissions, NAMI’s praise sounds more like political propaganda. The organization is an enthusiastic advocate of involuntary “treatment” for people diagnosed with schizophrenia, such as John Nash. If drugging patients requires force, so be it, because “Many people with schizophrenia suffer from poor insight, or anosognosia.” It is indeed tempting to believe that anyone who disagrees with you is suffering from poor insight.

The movie’s major distortion concerns Nash’s use of antipsychotic drugs. Contrary to the movie, Nash stopped taking drugs in 1970. He couldn’t have taken the “newer” neuroleptic drugs available in 1994 that are credited with helping him to control his hallucinations. Yet in the movie Nash’s character says he did. The filmmakers thus lied to their audience about the role of drugs. Why? What was the purpose of the lie?

Again contrary to the movie, Nash was not hospitalized against his will only once. His wife had him committed three times. He objected and became a vegetarian in the hospital in protest. At one point his wife even had the U.S. government force his return from Europe.

What about his schizophrenia? The movie portrays Nash’s hallucinations as visual. From a moviemaker’s perspective, that is understandable. But the elaborate visions that director Ron Howard served up simply did not occur. Nash’s hallucinations were auditory; that is, he “heard voices.”

But Nash was mentally ill, was he not? You be the judge. In the PBS program “A Brilliant Madness: The Story of John Nash,” Nash told an interviewer, “Madness can be an escape. If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better. In madness, I thought I was the most important person in the world.” He continued, “To some extent, sanity is a form of conformity. And to some extent, people who are insane are non-conformists and society and their family wish that they would live what appear to be useful lives.” As for hearing voices, Nash said, “You’re really talking to yourself.” No doubt NAMI, which claims to respect the people stigmatized by the diagnosis of schizophrenia, would say he lacks insight.

Nash’s story hardly conveys what the filmmakers and NAMI want the public to learn. A brilliant, obnoxious, ambitious, slow-to-succeed, and lonely man invented and lived out a drama to make his life exciting. The drama was so central to his life that it eventually interfered with other things he valued: his love of mathematics and his marriage. One day he changed his priorities. Thus this “illness” was “cured” by an exertion of Nash’s will supported by a loving woman. In truth, this sounds not like a disease, but like what Thomas Szasz calls “problems in living.” For this, the man was psychiatrically incarcerated, put into insulin shock (which diabetics strive to avoid), and drugged—all in accordance with the law.