What We Can Learn From A Beautiful Mind, A Movie About Schizophrenic Man John Nash

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While movies and television can increase awareness of mental health disorders, they can also contribute to stigmatization. One example may involve media portrayals of schizophrenia, which are often criticized for their inaccuracy and generalizations. Numerous movies tend to show individuals with schizophrenia as being criminally violent, connected to the world of demons and the supernatural, or possessing superhuman abilities. 

Research suggests that this type of stigmatization can be common, with one study showing that 64.5% of its 5871 participants with schizophrenia had experienced stigma. This type of stigmatization can have severe consequences, including recovery difficulties, low quality of life, and an inability to integrate into the community. 

While certain movies may increase stigmatization, accurate portrayals of schizophrenia can be beneficial. One movie that is often praised for its accuracy is A Beautiful Mind, the 2001 biographical movie about a schizophrenic man and mathematician named John Nash. While this description of the movie may be common, it can be important to note that one shouldn’t refer to someone as a “schizophrenic” but rather use person-first language (e.g., calling them a “person living with schizophrenia.”) Doing so can further reduce stigmatization.

While the film may not accurately portray the experiences of every person with schizophrenia, A Beautiful Mind may serve as an example of what an individual living with schizophrenia can accomplish. It can also show the potential efficacy of antipsychotic medication, which today’s mental health professionals often recommend combining with regular therapy sessions for symptom relief.

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It can be possible to manage schizophrenia symptoms

Synopsis of A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is based on the real-life story of John Forbes Nash, an American mathematician who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the development of game theory. 

The movie takes place between 1947 and the 1960s, starting at Princeton University, where John Nash was a graduate student. Nash, who is at the university as a recipient of the Carnegie Scholarship for Mathematics, is generally portrayed as having difficulties with his classmates. However, he forms a friendship with his roommate, Charles, as well as classmates Ainsley, Bender, and Sol. 

During a discussion at a bar with Charles and several other classmates, the students are discussing ways to approach women. During this discussion, Nash formulates a theory that would later serve as the foundation for his contribution to game theory. After publishing his theory of governing dynamics, Nash is appointed at MIT and brings Sol and Bender with him. 

A few years later, in 1953, Nash is invited to the Pentagon to assist with the decryption of Russian communications during the Cold War. While Nash continues to teach at MIT during this time, he finds his duties boring and accepts an invitation from William Parcher of the United States Department of Defense to work on a classified assignment. 

Nash becomes obsessed with his task, which involves finding hidden patterns in magazines and newspapers relating to a secret Soviet plot. During this time, he falls in love with a student named Alicia (whom he is later encouraged to marry by Charles, who is accompanied at the time by his niece, Marcee). However, Nash continues his work and believes he is being followed as a result. 

This culminates in Nash being caught in a gunfight between Soviet agents and Parcher, which leads him to request to leave the project (a request which Parcher denies, saying he will be killed). Shortly after, during a lecture at Harvard University, Nash sees his former roommate Charles in the crowd. He is momentarily excited, but then spots Russian agents and flees. 

Nash is caught by these supposed Russian agents, who turn out to be a psychiatric team led by Dr. Rosen. Alicia is informed that Nash is experiencing schizophrenia and that several people in his life (including Charles, Marcee, and Parcher) are not real. Alicia informs Nash, who cuts into his arm to find the diode that had supposedly been implanted as a part of his mission, but finds nothing. Nash is administered insulin shock therapy and given antipsychotic medication. 

However, upon his release, he stops taking this medication and starts to see Charles and Parcher once again. After an incident where Nash leaves his son in the bathtub under Charles’s care and knocks Alicia to the ground to save her from Parcher, Nash finds ways to cope with his disorder. While he still sees Charles, Marcee, and Parcher, he realizes they are hallucinations. 

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Nash returns to Princeton to audit classes and work out of the library, eventually being allowed to teach once again. The movie ends with Nash being awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on game theory. He dedicates the prize to his wife, and at the ceremony, he sees Charles, Marcee, and Parcher as he leaves the auditorium, but only gives them a passing glance before leaving. 

Was schizophrenia accurately portrayed in A Beautiful Mind? 

In addition to differing from John Nash’s actual life story, several aspects of schizophrenia’s portrayal in A Beautiful Mind may not be accurate. However, some components of the film may accurately depict the experiences of individuals living with schizophrenia. 

While every case of schizophrenia can be unique, several potentially accurate symptoms and elements from the film may include the following.

  • Delusions: Delusions are typically false beliefs that are not based on reality or logic. Individuals with schizophrenia may continue to hold these beliefs even if there is significant evidence indicating they are untrue. In A Beautiful Mind, John experiences several types of delusions, including delusions of grandeur. These manifest in a variety of ways, including his belief that he is better or more important than his classmates, as well as when he thinks that Russian agents have personally arrived to capture him during his speech. 
  • Hallucinations: Hallucinations often involve an individual experiencing sights and sounds (and, in some cases, tastes, smells, and sensations) that do not exist. Auditory hallucinations, in particular, may be common for those living with schizophrenia. John Nash experiences a variety of hallucinations in the movie, primarily those that qualify as visual and auditory. Examples include his Princeton roommate and long-time friend, Charles, as well as Charles’s niece, Marcee. In many instances, Nash is seen holding conversations with these hallucinations, something that may also occur in real-life cases of schizophrenia. However, these may be exaggerated examples, as many individuals don’t experience hallucinations that are as persistent or intense as portrayed in the movie. 
  • Paranoia: Nash is diagnosed with what is referred to as “paranoid schizophrenia” in the film, a term that was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its fifth edition (DSM-V). While this subtype may no longer exist, and paranoia may not be an official symptom in the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, paranoia may manifest in those with schizophrenia, particularly in an individual's delusions and hallucinations. In A Beautiful Mind, Nash’s paranoia manifests in his fear that Russian spies are coming after him due to his work on a secret project—a project that does not exist and was provided to him by a visual hallucination, William Parcher. 

While an individual with schizophrenia may experience these symptoms, the way they are portrayed in the movie may not be entirely accurate. According to a scientific article published by cognitive neuropsychiatry professor Anthony David, the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenia are often fragmented and disembodied, as opposed to the consistent and clear manifestations present in the film. 

In addition, David notes that several myths about schizophrenia and mental illness are reinforced by the movie, including those discussed below:

  • The link between genius and the presence of severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia: Individuals of any intelligence level may experience schizophrenia, and David notes that the absence of these portrayals may be due to a lack of interest in that type of film being made. 
  • The healing properties of a loving relationship: While a supportive relationship with a loving partner may be beneficial in addition to traditional treatment options, the movie may indicate this can be a form of treatment on its own. 

However, David states that some aspects of the film, such as “seeing significance in the mundane and the struggle to find order amid chaos,” may be common elements of schizophrenia. David also praises the movie for portraying the impact that schizophrenia can have on the loved ones of individuals living with this disorder, and the fact that antipsychotic medication is shown as being potentially effective (albeit with side effects). 

A middle aged man ina button down shirt sits at a table and looks at the laptop open infront of him.
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It can be possible to manage schizophrenia symptoms

What type of schizophrenia treatment is in A Beautiful Mind? 

In A Beautiful Mind, Nash is treated with insulin shock therapy, an outdated procedure that typically involves the injection of insulin to induce a coma, followed by electroconvulsive therapy. This approach is no longer a common treatment for schizophrenia. According to the UK National Health Service, current treatments for schizophrenia may include a combination of prescription medications, such as antipsychotics, and therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. 

While multiple forms of therapy may be beneficial for individuals experiencing schizophrenia, in-person therapy sessions may not be available for everyone. In some cases, a person may not feel comfortable traveling to appointments or discussing their struggles in a face-to-face format. Others may not have enough available providers in their area, which could increase wait times or necessitate significant commutes to attend therapy. In these instances, it may be beneficial to explore alternative therapeutic options, such as online therapy. However, during periods of acute psychosis, it may be necessary to seek care in person.

Research suggests that online therapy may be equally as effective as therapy delivered in person. In a 2022 systematic review, researchers compared data from 12 randomized controlled trials to determine whether there was a difference between online therapy and face-to-face therapy. They found that there were no significant differences in symptom severity, overall improvement, function, client satisfaction, and working alliance between each treatment type, both immediately after treatment and at three, six, and 12 months. 

Takeaway

While some media portrayals of schizophrenia may be inaccurate or contribute to stigmatization, others may humanize those with schizophrenia and educate others about potential symptoms. A Beautiful Mind, a movie about Nobel prize winner and mathematician John Nash, may contain both accurate and inaccurate depictions of schizophrenia. The movie also includes a depiction of an outdated treatment for schizophrenia known as insulin shock therapy. Modern treatments typically include the use of antipsychotic medication and various forms of talk therapy. Depending on the recommendation of your medical or mental health provider, it may be possible to access treatment through several therapeutic formats, including online therapy.

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