In the past 50 years, the story of John Nash, as told first in the book A Beautiful Mind and then in the film that starred Russell Crowe as the great mathematician, is perhaps the best-known story of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia who “recovered.” Today, with obits appearing in the newspaper following his death on Saturday in a car crash in New Jersey, it is worth remembering how the true story of his recovery was hijacked in the movie and turned into an ad for a second generation of psychiatric medications.
I met John Nash once, quite by chance a number of years ago, when I was at a conference in Philadelphia. He was there with his wife for another purpose, and I was introduced to him as the author of Mad in America, although I wasn’t certain that title rang a bell for him. But the meeting for me was also memorable for this reason: he was accompanied by several people in the mental health arena with mainstream views (they may have been from NAMI, although I can’t remember for sure), and it struck me how remarkable it was that this this famous mathematician, whose recovery took place without the use of medications, could nevertheless be adopted by those who promote antipsychotics as an essential treatment for schizophrenia.
In her book, Sylvia Nasar wrote of how John Nash, after having been treated with neuroleptics during his many hospitalizations in the 1960s, stopped taking the drugs in 1970s. She wrote:
“Nash’s refusal to take the antipsychotic drugs after 1970, and indeed during most of the periods when he wasn’t in the hospital in the 1960s, may have been fortuitous. Taken regularly, such drugs, in a high percentage of cases, produce horrible, persistent symptoms like tardive dyskinesia . . . and a mental fog, all of which would have made his gentle recovery into the world of mathematics a near impossibility.”
You see in that passage both a “fact” and an assertion. The fact: Nash recovered without the use of neuroleptics. The assertion: If Nash had taken the drugs, they would have made it impossible for him to recover. The drugs, in Nasar’s book, are presented as a hindrance to recovery.
But in the movie this was all changed. In the scene before he receives a Nobel Prize, Russell Crowe speaks of taking “newer medications” that made it possible for him to do well. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill subsequently praised the film’s director, Ron Howard, for showing the “vital role of medication” in Nash’s recovery.
Why was this falsehood inserted? Nash later stated that he thought the screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, whose mother was a psychiatrist, inserted it because he was worried about people with schizophrenia stopping their medication. However, there was also a PR trade magazine that wrote with admiration at the time about the efforts by—and my memory fails me here, by either the pharmaceutical industry or one of the patient advocacy groups—to get this line into the script.
I don’t know why this falsehood was inserted into the movie. Perhaps it was dreamed up by the screenwriter on his own, and perhaps there were larger corporate and PR forces at work behind the scenes. I wrote about this hijacking of Nash’s life story in an op-ed for USA Today in 2002. Today Wikipedia and others make note of this falsehood; at least there is that record of a historical correction.
However, as our country mourns Nash’s death, I think the story of the movie serves as a reminder of how our societal thinking about psychiatric drugs arises from a narrative that is regularly filled with distortions and misinformation. Think of “drugs that fix chemical imbalances like insulin for diabetes,” and of studies that appeared in the scientific literature during the 1990s that told of how the atypicals were so much better than the first generation of psychiatric drugs, and of Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, and you can see a script that tells of a medical breakthrough and, if truth be told, it is that script that has governed our society’s “treatment” of those diagnosed with schizophrenia for the past 20 years.
And so we can now ask this question: If a younger version of John Nash struggled with his mind today, after having published great scientific works on economic and mathematical theories, would he be given a chance to recover without the use of antipsychotic drugs? We all know the answer to that, and the bowdlerization of John Nash’s life is one reason why that is so.
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Revolutionary Road, A Beautiful Mind and Truthfulness by Bruce Levine, PhD, on Beyond Meds.
(See minutes 24-27 for Nash’s reflections on recovery without medication.)
– Thank you to Monica Cassani of Beyond Meds for the video links.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.