Bio: John Nash, Schizophrenia

March 3, 2022

John Nash was a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and economist and the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning film “The Beautiful Mind.” Nash overcame the challenges of a schizophrenia diagnosis to lead an incredibly, colorful life. Despite decades of paranoia and hallucinations, he not only eventually overcame the diagnosis but left an indelible mark on the world.

This is the story of Nash’s incredible life.

Hints of Genius Early On

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Nash was born in 1928 in a small town by the name of Bluefield, West Virginia. The Nash family was particularly lucky during the 1930s as Nash’s father had secure employment, and the family weathered the Great Depression better than most. His upbringing and early life, by all accounts, were supportive and loving. 

Throughout his first years at school, he exhibited intelligence, but his friends and teachers never described him as a prodigy. True, his schoolmates described him as socially awkward and immature, but he was never an outcast.

In fact, he was the local prankster and well-liked within his neighborhood. These characteristics followed him throughout his life and became a part of his unique charm.

When Nash was 13, he read Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell. This initial introduction to math set the course for his illustrious career in advanced mathematics. His academic career kicked off at Carnegie Institute of Technology, but eventually, he found himself attending Princeton University, studying mathematical theory.

While at Princeton, he developed the Nash Equilibrium theory as well as extensive work on the game theory of economics.

By 1958, he had begun teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was in these early days that the first signs of his schizophrenia started to become apparent.

His symptoms began as a rising paranoia that someone was following him but quickly became quite alarming. According to some reports, he began drifting off mid-lecture during class or making nonsensical statements to friends, students, and colleagues.

His wife, Alicia Nash, became concerned enough to speak with a professional about the strange behavior of her husband. As his antics became increasingly frightening, his colleagues began suspecting a nervous breakdown.

Ultimately, his friends had him committed to the McLean Hospital part of the Harvard Medical School. Shortly after his involuntary commitment to the psychiatric hospital, his psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia

A Diagnosis, But Not Life Sentence

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality.” Compared with Nash’s story, this is an accurate depiction of the next few decades of his life. He spent years traveling into and out of reality rather fluidly.

During this time, he heard voices. In a 2002 interview with CBS Nash said, “I thought of the voices as … something a little different from aliens. I thought of them more like angels … It’s really my subconscious talking, it was really that … I know that now.”

The striking scenes depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind of Nash frantically writing numerical scriptures on blackboards were a common occurrence. He became known as the Phantom of Fine Hall for his late-night wanders through the halls of MIT. 

During the most extreme fluctuations in his schizophrenia, Nash became estranged from his family. He went through many admissions into psychiatric institutes during the most challenging periods. He tried just about every treatment from shock therapy to the new antipsychotic medications coming on the market. 

Despite his decades-long battle with paranoia and the voices in his head, Nash continued to make mathematical breakthroughs. Some even suspect his diagnosis may have helped him make some of these breakthroughs.

He went on to win several prestigious global awards, including the John Von Neumann Theory Prize in Mathematics and, of course, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1994. 

At some point in his later life, the strongest symptoms of his diagnosis began to recede. As he explained in an interview, “I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging.”

According to some analyses, roughly 50 percent of people with schizophrenia can overcome it with treatment. Another 20 percent of older adults with the condition may simply grow out of it.

Nash was clear that his mental health condition did not define him, nor did it limit him. He once detailed, “People are always selling the idea that people with mental illness are suffering. I think madness can be an escape. If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better.”

Nash and his wife tragically passed away in a car accident in New Jersey after just having received another international award for his work, the Abel Prize in 2015. His life is a lesson to all of us on how schizophrenia is not a life sentence, nor does it define a person’s worth.

Both his biography A Beautiful Mind and the film of the same name, capture his lifelong dance with schizophrenia. Importantly, they tell his story in a way that does not diminish his mathematical achievements

Self Assessment for Schizophrenia

Unlike anxiety, depression, and other common mental health conditions, people with schizophrenia often find it challenging to self-assess. The voices, paranoia, and delusions became a reality, and therefore, difficult to reflect on.

According to an assessment of this characteristic in Neuropsychology, “Poor insight is a well-documented feature of schizophrenia, including reduced awareness of having a mental disorder, need for treatment, and the consequences of the illness.”

Self-assessment of schizophrenia may not always be possible. If you have experienced paranoid thoughts, possible hallucinations, and have heard voices, it’s critical to seek the opinion of a professional. A professional can help you with a self-assessment and help shine a light on your reality, even if it’s not possible from within your own perspective.

Checklist of Symptoms

As per the National Institute of Mental Health, there are three categories of symptoms for schizophrenia: positive, negative, and cognitive.

Positive symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Unusual or dysfunctional thoughts
  • Agitated physical movements

Negative symptoms include:

  • Loss of emotional expression (face or tone of voice)
  • Loss of pleasure in everyday life
  • Difficulty starting or sustaining normal daily activities

Cognitive symptoms include:

  • Difficulty making decisions and processing information
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Challenges with working memory

Although Nash eventually overcame his diagnosis without medications, his transition was a natural hormonal shift after decades of guidance and treatment from professionals. Throughout his life, he relied on inpatient and outpatient treatment for keeping his symptoms under control. He had the full support of his family, coworkers, and friends as well. 

Again, should you or someone you know begin experiencing the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia, it is critical to seek the help of an experienced practitioner. Unlike more common mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, schizophrenia almost always needs the guidance of healthcare professionals to overcome. Remember, self-assessment is very difficult with schizophrenia.

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