The University Record, January 14, 2002

New movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ busts schizophrenia myths, raises awareness

By Kara Gavin,
Health System Public Relations

Across the country, movie critics and audiences are applauding “A Beautiful Mind” for its moving portrayal of noted mathematician John Nash and his struggle with schizophrenia. But no matter how much money the film makes, or how many Academy Award nominations it receives, a noted U-M schizophrenia expert says it has achieved a higher purpose—raising the public’s awareness about this common but overlooked mental illness.

The movie’s depiction of the Princeton professor and Nobel Prize winner may not be exactly medically up-to-date, but its presentation of a schizophrenic, who is able to work and have relationships, and get help from medications and a social support system , is groundbreaking, says Rajiv Tandon, a psychiatrist who heads the Health System’s schizophrenia program.

“There are so many myths about schizophrenia in the public’s mind, and so little understanding of how far we’ve come in helping those who have it, and the challenges we still face,” Tandon says. “This is despite the fact that schizophrenia affects as many as one in 100 Americans, and often strikes during the best years of their lives, in late adolescence and early adulthood.”

Tandon, who has met Nash and read his biography, calls him a “remarkable man” who has slowly emerged from the worst phase of his illness, as many schizophrenics do later in life. The movie, based upon the book, chronicles Nash’s life from his achievements in the 1950s as a brilliant young mathematician, through the hallucinations and delusions that plagued him for 25 years starting in 1959, and into recent times when he was able to resume his research.

Nash’s experiences, including the timing of his illness’ onset during his early adulthood, the withdrawal and reduced thinking capacity that it brought, and his failure to get much relief from many medications, make him a typical schizophrenic, Tandon says, though his intellect was far from typical. Even still, Tandon notes, the disease knocked many points off Nash’s IQ.

Like Nash, most schizophrenics experience three kinds of symptoms, often in differing severity and patterns throughout their lives, explains Tandon, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry.

Schizophrenia is not the same thing as split- or multiple-personality disorder, Tandon explains, and, though violent behavior sometimes arises from extreme cases of paranoia, schizophrenics are no more violent than the rest of the population. These myths and others, such as the old-fashioned belief that the disease is caused by faulty parenting, are falling by the wayside.

As Nash’s story illustrates, psychiatrists have struggled for decades to find treatments that can lessen schizophrenia’s symptoms, even while they search for the root causes in the brain’s chemistry. Different medications and social support strategies have come into use—and fallen out of it—over the years. More are now in development or in clinical trials.