A Case Study on Schizophrenia and Delusional Disorders in the Film A Beautiful Mind

The John Forbes Nash, Jr. biopic A Beautiful Mind (2001) detailed the dramatic rise and fall of the celebrated Nobel Prize winner and mathematician as he battled the debilitating effects of schizophrenia to eventually attain international acclaim.

Schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by an inability to perceive reality, affects roughly one percent of the human population. In the film, John Nash’s disorder is depicted through a series of delusions that eventually leads to a downward spiral which almost incapacitates Nash. It also showed the various treatments Nash had to undergo in his fight to overcome schizophrenia.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

While schizophrenia is usually experienced by people in their adolescence, just “as they are about to spread their wings” – as Nasar said in the New York Times – Nash “was struck when he had already begun to soar” (Lautin, 2001, http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2001/02/27/page3/). John Nash began to visibly exhibit the symptoms of schizophrenia in 1958 when he was approximately 30 years old. When Nash’s mental disturbances began, he was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his wife Alicia was pregnant with their son.

During this time, he began having delusions – he believed that he could see encrypted messages in newspaper articles, and often missed classes and lectures, so absorbed was he in his quest to decode the newspapers. Soon after, his delusions escalated and he began to think that he was being recruited into a secret code-breaking unit of the military.

Once, he disrupted a lecture by announcing to his students that he would appear on the cover of a magazine masquerading as the pope. He also believed that spies were trying to reach him through the New York Times. He also refused an offer from the University of Chicago, believing that he was about to be appointed as the Emperor of Antarctica.

Nonetheless, the film showed that throughout Nash’s stay at Princeton, from 1945 to 1949, he was already having delusions. While at Princeton, he believed that he had a roommate, whereas records show that he had lived alone. He also believed in the existence of his roommate’s young niece, a little girl that sometimes accompanied his roommate.

As a consequence of his growing schizophrenia, Nash was forced to resign from MIT, and was practically incapacitated for the following two decades. In 1959, Nash began to become increasingly paranoid, forcing his wife to admit him into the McLean Hospital where he was treated with chlorpromazine injections.

The McLean Hospital is a private psychiatric institution which employs treatments such as counseling, psychoanalysis, and group and family therapy. There he was placed under observation for 50 days and was eventually diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia and mild depression with low self-esteem” (Wikipedia, 2006, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forbes_Nash#Schizophrenia).

A Beautiful Mind portrayed John Nash’s disorder as a succession of visual hallucinations: the roommate in Princeton, the roommate’s niece, the operatives that recruited him into a covert code-breaking mission, the encoded messages in newspaper clippings, and the spies that pursued him.

Bu the symptoms of Nash’s disorder that were depicted in the film are misleading and inaccurate. If these symptoms were exhibited by someone in real life, the physician might suspect that the patient is merely suffering from the effects of a drug or he might send the patient for an MRI to assess the presence of a brain tumor. Hallucinations and “split personalities” are not always indicative of schizophrenia. The version of the disorder portrayed in A Beautiful Mind does not reflect what actually occurs in real life.