Mental Health in Movies – Review of “A Beautiful Mind”
Grand Valley State University
Professor Sarah Bradley
“Critique of a Beautiful Mind”
“A Beautiful Mind” is a film based on the life of a man named John Nash, a famous mathematician and Nobel prize winner. John Nash was a brilliant Princeton graduate, whom was diagnosed with Schizophrenia shortly after graduate school. It is believed that John had Schizophrenia much before and during his time at Princeton, but it went unnoticed and undiagnosed for a long time. John tended to withdraw from social interactions and groups of people, so no one ever found his behavior that abnormal. This film depicts Johns’ years in graduate school, before being diagnosed with any mental illness, when he was disliked by many of his colleagues. it goes on to show his life after graduate school as a professor and successful public speaker, and finally ends much later in his life after he is married, has a child, and attends regular therapy sessions while taking daily medication for his Schizophrenia.
John was given the diagnosis of Schizophrenia in the movie, which I find completely accurate. He exhibited many of the common symptoms, such as hallucinations, paranoia, and poor social skills. John had many hallucinations in the movie. For example, he had a college roommate named Charles, that was constantly with him. Charles helped him through a lot of things, like finding his ultimate breakthrough that led him to receive the Nobel prize and helped him calm down in his moments of depression and anger, like when John bashed his head into the window out of frustration. We find out later in the movie that Charles was never real. It was a part of John’s imagination and a coping mechanism.
Another reason I found the diagnosis accurate was John’s constant paranoia. After Princeton, John became a professor that was very successful. His success led him to believe that Russians were out to get him. He had more hallucinations including being invited to a secret United States Department of Defense facility in the Pentagon to crack a complex encryption of an enemy communication. A man in a dark suit saw John crack the code, and gave John a new assignment: to look for patterns in Soviet magazines and newspapers. He writes reports of his findings and places them in a “secret” mailbox. Later on, the hallucinations go even further to being chased by the Russians and being shot at. His paranoia becomes so great that he forces his wife to leave the house out of fear for her safety. This is when his wife finally realized something was wrong and sought out help. His wife and the therapist discovered he had been hiding out in a nearby shack that had every wall covered in Soviet newspaper and magazine pages, spy radios, and an abandoned mailbox filled with John’s “secret findings.”
John had been making a lot of progress with his illness through the medication. He was no longer hallucinating or paranoid of the Soviet’s attacking him. He could carry his baby now, and his wife let him feed and change him too. However, a common reason people do not enjoy or even stop taking medications like that are because it dulls their emotional and sex drive. He was not able to make his wife happy and he felt terrible, so he stopped taking it. His wife was unaware he stopped, because he was hiding it in the drawer, pretending he was perfectly fine. Since he stopped, he started hallucinating and being paranoid again. The spy showed up in his house trying to convince John that the therapist was lying to him, Charles also kept showing up trying to convince John that his wife was overreacting because he was okay.
As much as John attempted to make the hallucinations go away, he could not. So, he dealt with them. Then came the most frightening and sad part of the movie, which showed the extremely negative effects that John’s hallucinations and disconnect from reality had. Since John’s wife thought she could trust him with the baby, she let John bathe him while she went outside to do the laundry. While she was outside, she found another hidden shack filled with all new magazine and newspaper articles all over the walls; she realized it was starting again. She ran into the house to find her baby almost completely submerged in the bathtub, because John said that “Charles was watching him.” If she would not have realized in time, the baby could have drowned, even though John did not understand the problem. She was of course upset, but Charles and the spy just continued to yell at John telling him to kill her and the baby. John fought against the voices and said he could never harm either of them, but his wife left the house out of fear for what he was capable of.
I thought this film was extremely interesting and well produced, but it sent both positive and negative messages to the public about Schizophrenia. Some of the positive messages included that medicine does not cure everything, like some people would assume. Even with the antipsychotic drugs, no symptoms are really cured, just diminished for the time being. It also shows that individuals with Schizophrenia should not feel completely helpless. Like John, it is possible to maintain a more functional life through strong will power. Not saying that one can just think themselves out of their illness, but it can give an individual hope and strength on the days they are struggling most. Another positive message addressed the misconception that people with a higher intelligence are less susceptible to Schizophrenia. John was extremely intelligent, even a Nobel Prize winner, this did not make a difference to his genetic predisposition to the illness.
Some negative messages were the extreme ideals of “on medicine he is fine”, and “without medicine he is a maniac.” Medication is not even close to perfect, and cannot cure everything; nobody can simply rely on medication to be fully functional. Another negative message people might get is that if they are intelligent, they can just will away their hallucinations like John did. It is very rare that individuals can just ignore their hallucinations. Also, the constant visual hallucinations are not accurate. It makes sense that for a movie, they want to make the delusions and hallucination seem more animated, but people are much more likely to just experience hearing voices in their head than they are to seeing actual people and crazy scenes like being in a car chase with open fire.
My hope for this movie is that it lessened the stigma the public has on this mental illness, and began to educated individuals on the struggles people diagnosed with Schizophrenia have. A lot of stigma against individuals with Schizophrenia is that they are violent and angry when in fact, they are much more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. The movie did a great job suggesting this truth by showing John could be angry and sad and hit his own head on the window, but in the case where his wife and baby were in danger, he had no interest or intention in harming them.
Another common stigma people tend to have is that Schizophrenia is the same as having a split personality or a multiple personality. When it is actually that people with schizophrenia tend to have trouble differentiating between what is real and what is imaginary, and may have trouble in certain social situations. This is suggested by showing that John is never another personality, he is always dealing with his symptoms and real life at the same time. This is also why it took people so long to figure out he had Schizophrenia, he was always the same guy. He just had a lot of inner struggles that influenced strange behavior at times.
I believe that since this film was based on the real life of John Nash, it helped to create and manage proper accuracy. Obviously, some parts are exaggerated for the Hollywood effect and to catch the attention of viewers but the overall message and goal of the movie was clear: to inform the public of this illness. The illness Schizophrenia is hard to diagnose and understand, since it can be very subjective. Symptoms can include anything from hallucinations, delusions, unusual thinking, and reduced feelings of pleasure to neglecting basic hygiene, substance abuse and issues with working memory. Symptoms are usually treated by antipsychotic medicines because they change the balance of chemicals in the brain and can help control symptoms.
Once John had been properly diagnosed, his therapist began insulin shock therapy treatments, prescribed daily medications to lower his paranoia and hallucinations, and would come to John and his wife’s home to do family support therapy as well. This is pretty consistent in what real treatment would be. The shock therapy treatment is no longer used today, due to the increased availability of anti-psychotic drugs. Overall, it seems that a structured, predictable and supportive environment seems to help most for individuals suffering with Schizophrenia.
Grazer, B., Howard, R., Goldsman, A., Crowe, R., Harris, E., Connelly, J., Bettany, P., ImagineEntertainment (Firm). (2002). A beautiful mind. Willowdale, Ont: Distributed by Universal Studios Canada.
Hooley, J. M., Butcher, J. N., Nock, M., & Mineka, S. (2017). Abnormal psychology. Boston: Pearson.