People may often mistake schizophrenia for several other disorders as it’s not widely understood. Schizophrenia is sometimes mistaken with dissociative identity disorder (DID), which involves having multiple and distinct personalities that control the person’s behaviour at different times. Schizophrenia is also often mistaken for bipolar disorder, which causes a person to experience unusual shifts in their mood between depression and mania/hypomania. Typically, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia will experience faulty perceptions of reality and/or hear or see things that aren’t actually there. This can be a very scary experience for someone who does not have this disorder but also contributes to misinterpretations about what the disorder actually is. The main misconception surrounding it is that people with this disorder are violent and out to harm people and society.
So, What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia mainly involves a clear disconnection from reality. The person diagnosed with schizophrenia has often lost touch with reality as they experience hallucinations and/or delusions. Hallucinations involve experiencing some sort of stimuli that do not actually exist, the person may hear, see, feel, taste or smell something that is not there. Delusions are false beliefs that are not based on reality, such as the belief that someone is out to get them or that their partners are not loyal to them.
The biographical movie follows the life of mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. through his innovative work on game theory in mathematics as well as a representation of how his mental illness has developed over the years. The film takes Nash’s delusional perspective as it shows characters based on his hallucinations as well as (showing) his delusional and paranoid thoughts as they’re uncovered one by one.
Schizophrenia in the Movie
Trigger warning: mention of self-harm.
Throughout the movie, the main character, John Nash, displayed several characteristics of schizophrenia, both positive and negative symptoms*. Although how the disorder was shown and how it developed was not an accurate representation of what the real John Nash experienced (which was mostly auditory hallucinations), the movie does accurately shed light on the experiences of schizophrenic patients. In the beginning of the movie, Nash attempts to introduce himself to his colleagues and jokes about how their work in “unoriginal” and that he will be able to (come up with) a more novel idea. This begins to highlight his delusions of grandeur, which may be the first indicator of his disorder. We also see John Nash appear to lack emotions and display a blunt affect, that is not to say that he is deprived of emotions, but that he does not overtly display them.
Throughout the movie, we can see several of John Nash’s visual hallucinations. One of his main social connections at university was with his college roommate, literature student, Charles Herman, who was later found to be a product of his imagination. The audience may notice that Nash’s room is made for one person, and the inclusion of a roommate would be rather odd. As the movie unfolds, Nash finds out that both Charles and his niece are part of his schizophrenia hallucinations, especially after realising that Charles’ niece does not age.
Nash also believed that he was working with a secret government agent, William Parcher, from the Department of Defense. During that time, Nash was working on breaking Soviet codes and delivering his work through a secret mailbox. Nash becomes obsessed with this classified assignment, and he becomes more withdrawn in order to focus on finishing it. Later, his wife revealed to him that William Parcher did not exist and that she had tracked the unopened mail Nash had sent to him.
We also see Nash fearing for his life as he is fleeing from “Soviet agents” (delusions of persecution) led psychiatrist by Dr. Rosen before he is forcibly sedated and committed to a psychiatric facility. Nash was also seen to be engaging in self-harm while he is at the psychiatric institution which is not uncommon for patients with schizophrenia.
At the hospital, is put under shock therapy alongside medications as part of his treatment, and later came to the conclusion that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
A misconception that the movie portrayed was the treatment process for schizophrenia. In the movie, it seemed that Nash quickly learned how to cope with his disorder and return back to his normal life. This is inaccurate as most patients spend several years recovering, including real-life John Nash as he spent an extended period of time unable to work.
The movie was accurate about the importance of medications and family support in the patient’s treatment journey.
After Nash was released from the psychiatric hospital, he proceeded to complete his mathematical research. However, the medications that he was put on to treat his symptoms resulted in changes in how he thinks which led him to make less progress with his research. As a result, Nash stopped taking his medications, which then led to him relapsing and his hallucinations and delusions were brought back. We see this as he leaves his baby alone in the bathtub and claims that Charles was looking after him. His wife saved their baby as she sees Nash arguing with what seemed to be nothing, but to Nash, he was arguing with Charles and William Patcher. We also see Nash behaving violently and he accidentally runs at his wife. This could be interpreted as simple violent behaviour; however, it is influenced by his hallucinations as he believed that he was running at Parcher. Nash’s wife tries to leave the house before Nash stopped her and explains that he has gained insight into his symptoms and has realized that what he was seeing was part of his hallucinations.
Living with Schizophrenia
Nash realized that he may not be able to cope with his symptoms on his own. He returned to work at Princeton and tries to manage his symptoms in a different environment, which he managed to do. This is the time in John Nash’s life when he was able to continue his research and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for work on his dissertation. Charles and William Parcher were still present in scenes, but Nash would choose not to acknowledge them as he realised that they were part of his disorder and not part of reality.
The movie accurately portrays the importance of a supportive environment (Nash’s wife and colleagues) in treating schizophrenia, however, it is an inaccurate representation of how Nash was able to “heal” himself by ignoring his hallucinations and delusions. The treatment process for schizophrenia involves a combination of long-term medications and psychotherapy.
How Schizophrenia Could Affect A Patient's Loved Ones:
A Beautiful Mind highlights how disorders such as schizophrenia can impact those living with patients. Patients’ loved ones often feel the burden of taking care of them. Family members or loved ones often need to exert effort to take care of themselves while taking care of those around them. This is seen in Nash’s wife as she takes care of Nash as well as their new-born son. Nash also secretly stops taking his medications which leads to a relapse in symptoms that his wife still had to cope with as she saved their son from drowning when Nash thought that Charles was watching him.
In the film, Nash sees actual “people” with whom he has conversations and relationships. Most commonly, patients of schizophrenia tend to see distorted things or are not lifelike. As for the delusions, both Nash’s persecutory delusions and grandiose delusions are common for patients with schizophrenia.
The main features of schizophrenia are:
Patients tend to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste things that are not present in reality. At times a patient’s hallucinations are related to their delusions. The most common hallucinations are auditory hallucinations.
Patients may have rigid false beliefs that are difficult to change, regardless of the evidence presented against them. Common delusions involve the belief that they are being watched and persecuted.
Patients diagnosed with schizophrenia often experience difficulties in organizing their thoughts while they’re speaking, which sometimes come out as disorganised speech. They may struggle to focus on one topic in a conversation or may speak in incoherent sentences.
Disorganized or Catatonic Behaviour
Disorganized behaviour can involve jumpy behaviour, making the same movements over and over, or moving excessively. At times, this behaviour can seem silly or childish. Catatonic behaviour involves holding a certain pose (even if it is an uncomfortable one) for no specific reason for a long period of time.
Negative symptoms include behaviours that represent a decrease in certain functions. It may involve a decrease in emotional expression or having a flat affect, displaying fewer gestures, or having a lack of motivation.
The media often portrays the negative aspects of schizophrenia and these portrayals may have an influence on society’s view of this disorder. Schizophrenia can be frustrating and sometimes scary for patients as well as their loved ones, but, with proper treatment and support, patients learn to better cope with their symptoms. Media can be a powerful force, but should always strive to communicate the realities of mental illness in a way that is both accurate and supportive for those living with these disorders.