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Paranoid Schizophrenia in “A Beautiful Mind” Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2022

Introduction

Mental illness is a prevalent issue that many people struggle with. Almost everyone has encountered or knows someone affected by a mental health condition. This makes it a relevant topic in the film media format. Despite its commonality, mental illness remains a sensitive and uncomfortable topic for discussion due to associated stigma, and its portrayal in media may not be accurate for social or cinematic purposes. The film A Beautiful Mind depicts the impact of progressive paranoid schizophrenia on the mathematician John Nash and the burden that it places on social and personal relationships.

Plot

The movie is biographical drama following the professional life of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. It begins with his stay at Princeton where he is a graduate student under extreme pressure to publish. There, Nash meets his roommate by the name of Charles who is emotional and laid-back. Eventually, John develops the foundations for his Nash equilibrium theory and publishes it which gets him a job at MIT.

After a few years, Nash is invited to work for the Pentagon to serve as a codebreaker which he is talented at due to his mental abilities. Eventually, a mysterious agent by the name of William Patcher invites Nash to track Soviet spy communication through coded phrases in newspapers. At the same time, Nash meets and marries one of his students, Alicia Larde. As Nash works on the secret project, he begins to feel paranoid and endangered but is pressured by Patcher to remain on the project.

Larde gets Nash to see a doctor who diagnoses paranoid schizophrenia and places Nash on medication. However, Nash stops taking the medication due to side-effects affecting his mental abilities. Eventually, Alicia becomes suspicious after Nash left their child drowning in a tub, believing that his old roommate Charles was watching. After packing her things and attempting to leave, Nash stops her in desperation and admits that he sees hallucinations of Charles, Patcher, and others.

This realization came because Charles’ niece that Nash continuously sees, never gets older over the years. Nash does not want to take medication but attempts to control his disease. He continues to see the hallucinations but ignores their existence, even when they directly interact with him. Over the years, with support from Alicia, he is able to live a fulfilling life, succeeding in both personal and academic life (A Beautiful Mind).

Psychological Issue

Schizophrenia is a chronic condition that disturbs cognitive function and has a profound impact on perceptions and behavior which have a debilitating effect. It is common to experience delusions, hallucinations (both visual and auditory), and dementia. Cognitive function is impaired as patients struggle to organize thoughts, clearly express themselves, remember things, or even fulfill basic tasks. It may impact the emotional state and mood expression as the person will seem apathetic or lacking interest in life. The disease has a lifetime prevalence of approximately 1% of Americans (“Schizophrenia”).

The specific condition of paranoid schizophrenia is a subtype of the disease. These patients are most affected by hallucinations. Other symptoms may include erratic behavior or disassociation. People affected by paranoid schizophrenia believe they are being criticized, plotted against, or persecuted by those around them. They associate insignificant items with more complex plots, such as a newspaper headline being aimed at them.

These delusions may be developed in the patient’s mind to the point of being consistent and systemic, to the point of logical plausibility. However, hallucinations and the person’s expressions eventually begin to become obsessive and absurd. In turn, this impacts behavior and can result in violent outbursts or other dangerous actions (“Schizophrenia (DSM-IV-TR #295.1–295.3, 295.90)”).

Etiology

Schizophrenia is a complex disease, with its causes and processes mostly unknown, which makes it exceptionally difficult to treat and manage as well. The etiology of Schizophrenia is based on several probable hypotheses. However, most researchers agree that the disease has a biological and neurochemical basis with potentially impactful environmental factors. Genetics is considered one of the leading causes of schizophrenia, as a variation of genes is passed down through generations.

Although not guaranteed, the family history of the disease significantly increases the risk of development. Another popular theory is the possibility of prenatal exposure to stress and other adverse factors that interfere with brain neurochemistry. Brain chemistry may be a factor in adulthood as well, as elevated levels of dopamine transmission and hypofunction of glutamatergic NMDA receptor are associated with schizophrenia (Fitzgerald 497). Finally, environmental factors such as exposure to violence or active substance abuse could have had potential psychological impacts that led to schizophrenia.

Evidence shows that the disease is present before showing of symptoms and official diagnosis. People show lower cognitive performance scores and anti-social behavior from early childhood. The motor function can be poorly developed as well. Schizophrenia is believed to progress during adolescence but can be hard to notice due to natural erratic behaviors in this age. Clinical symptoms of schizophrenia can appear suddenly and gradually.

Some patients can show recovery and lead relatively healthy lives with medication while others show chronic disability. Social shunning and suicide remain a leading cause of death amongst people with schizophrenia. Almost half of the patients engage in some form of substance abuse. Schizophrenia is driven by environmental stressors, as certain situations or locations can cause relapses. As stress affects brain function, the neurochemistry of the abnormal schizophrenic’s brain structure results in the chronic or worsening exemplifications of the disease (Walker et al. 414).

Impact on Characters

John Nash from the early scenes in a film is portrayed as extremely awkward and quirky. Although it is yet unclear that he has schizophrenia, something seems off. However, at first, the film shows it to be beneficial by allowing him to develop an innovative hypothesis. In a way, his madness contributed to his genius. Throughout the film, Nash’s hallucinations are not necessarily debilitating to him. They challenge and support him. Charles becomes a friend when Nash feels lonely at a new school. Patcher comes in with new challenges for Nash when he is inadvertently dissatisfied with his academic career.

However, schizophrenia significantly impacted John’s relationships because of his intelligence. The external perceptions of his genius simply did not connect with mental illness in the minds of others. As the disease progressively got worse, Nash began to engage himself in his imagination than real-life relationships. He distanced himself from academics and work. The relationship with his loving wife worsened, and he almost let his son die because of the failure to distinguish hallucination from reality. The disease impacted Nash in a way that his personality and perceptions shifted significantly every time he let the hallucinations take control.

Theme

Schizophrenia is a significant part of the movie’s theme which can be exemplified by the title. Despite such a dark and troubling condition, Nash remained a kind and intelligent person. The movie took place in the late 20th century when mental health was not appropriately recognized and treated. However, the themes can be reflected in modern day as well. The disease is a crippling phenomenon and can create dangers for the person and those around him. Nevertheless, it remains a health condition that can be managed. It does not make the person evil, nor should it cast anyone out of the society.

However, it is a condition which should be addressed and treated. As seen by John’s dramatic admission that “she never gets old,” people with schizophrenia are willing to challenge their reality and accept help (A Beautiful Mind). As evident by the protagonist, with competent support, he was able to live a successful life. It contributes to the theme of the movie that mental illness does not have to be a debilitating aspect and redemption is possible with proper management.

Personal Reaction

I had a positive reaction to the film as it was a compelling account of the impact of mental illness on a person. I believe the movie remained relatively accurate in its portrayal of schizophrenia, with the detail that could be covered in such a short time. There were recognizable drama and thriller elements to understandably give the film cinematic flair. However, the overall depiction seemed honest and authentic. I think the film did an excellent job of conscientiously portraying the societal attitudes towards mental health, and how Nash, despite his extraordinary genius, was ostracized. However, the aspect of redemption and re-integration in society is encouraging.

One issue I had with the film is the ease with which Nash was able to recognize and manage his disease. Although a biographical film, it gives the appearance that schizophrenia can be controlled with will-power which is inherently wrong. The condition often requires years of significant medicative and therapeutic intervention and changes to the environment to avoid stressors in order to live a relatively normal life, which is the best possible outcome.

Works Cited

A Beautiful Mind. Directed by Ron Howard, performance by Russel Crowe, Universal Pictures, 2001.

Fitzgerald, Paul. “Psychiatry Research, vol. 215, 2014, pp. 497-504. Web.

.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, n.d. Web.

Brown University, n.d. Web.

Walker, Elaine et al. “Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 55, 2004, pp. 401-430. Web.

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