'A Beautiful Mind' Sparks Awareness

As a physician specializing in the treatment of people who suffer from schizophrenia, I literally jumped for joy when the Oscar for best picture went to A Beautiful Mind.

Given all the fear and prejudice about schizophrenia that is so prevalent in our society, A Beautiful Mind is a shining triumph for public understanding about mental illness.

Loosely based upon a biography by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind tells the story of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.

After achieving a stunning theoretical breakthrough as a graduate student at Princeton, his life descends into the hellish nightmare that we call schizophrenia.

Only after decades of suffering and perseverance did Nash succeed in winning academia's highest honor — the Nobel Prize.

Skewed Perspectives

"Schizophrenia" is an archaic term that represents a group of neurobiological disorders affecting 2.5 million Americans.

While schizophrenia can have a devastating impact on affected individuals, it can be treated successfully. In fact, research has shown that many people with schizophrenia can recover to live satisfying and productive lives.

Schizophrenia is more common than Alzheimer's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis or Muscular Dystrophy. It is also more stigmatizing.

Although many people learn about schizophrenia through their own personal struggles or those of a family member, the majority learns about schizophrenia through the mass media.

According to a 1990 survey of public attitudes sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Mass media is, far and away, the public's primary source of information about mental illness."

Media depictions of schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders are typically inaccurate, portraying individuals who suffer from them as unpredictable, dangerous, and violent. Examples include movies such as Psycho II, Halloween and Me, Myself and Irene.

Taking a Different Tack

A Beautiful Mind has struck a different chord. Rather than portraying mentally ill persons as monsters or "maniacs," this movie presents the all-too-human side of those who bear the burden of schizophrenia.

Beyond depicting the devastating impact of this illness, it portrays the central character as a survivor and, ultimately, as a triumphant hero.

I was also delighted when Jennifer Connelly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her brilliant performance as Nash's wife gives us a rare insight into the anger and despair that are commonly experienced by family members of the mentally ill. Her performance also shows us the healing power of love.

Research has shown that family support can be an important ingredient in promoting recovery. Connelly's character gave the public a glimpse at the challenges faced by most families, which are invisible to our society.

A Beautiful Mind recently became the topic of discussion during a support group that I run for individuals with schizophrenia and their family members.

When I asked the group members whether they thought that the movie had accurately portrayed the symptoms of schizophrenia, I was met by puzzled looks.

Finally, one member of the group explained that there are more important things about A Beautiful Mind than its showing symptoms of the illness. "Doc, it's not about that," he stated, "This movie gave us hope."

At that moment I began to understand how the importance of A Beautiful Mind transcends questions about its depiction of an illness or its fidelity to a biography.

A Beautiful Mind is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit.

Perhaps the Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, Akiva Goldsman, said it best when he stated, "It is good to have a beautiful mind, but a greater gift to have a beautiful heart."

In a society where the word "schizophrenic" is used to describe everything from bad weather to failing sports teams, A Beautiful Mind provides an inspiring example of how recovery is possible.

Last night also underscored what Jim, a member of our group said: "It's a good movie, too!"

Dr. Steven Lamberti is an associate professor of psychiatry and the associate chair for clinical programs at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.