When you think of the word genius what comes to mind? A “mad” man standing in front of thousands of boiling scientific experiments of various oils and liquids or someone who seeks to harm themselves or others? For many of us, genius is the ability to understand complex concepts and examine its applicability to everyday life. Those who invent new social media apps like Vine or Periscope or those who invent new ideas or ways of doing mundane things is what most of us tend to associate with genius. We can all count a few geniuses on our hand (some famous and some not so famous). But rarely do we ever consider genius with severe mental illness. The association of a high level of intelligence and severe mental illness is an enigma to many of us. Even as a therapist myself, the idea of genius and mental illness is hard to consider. Research has attempted, over the years, to examine this connection. The presuming consensus of today is that genius is not only for those who appear well-adjusted in society, but for those who are obviously suffering from a condition of the mind. This article will discuss Mathematician John Nash whose life with schizophrenia and genius astounded many and whose death brings researchers back to the frontline of trying to understand the connection between genius and severe mental illness.
Schizophrenia is often a mental illness that many of us view as long-term, unstable, and chronic. It’s a mental illness that almost strikes the sufferer and the sufferer’s family as hard as a medical diagnosis of cancer would. It’s a plague to many families and a disease that steals the heart, mind, and soul of the person who seems held captive by a poorly treated disease. We’re rarely able to maintain a positive perspective when a loved one (or perhaps even you) are diagnosed with schizophrenia. In fact, any psychotic disorder can seem like a death sentence. Diagnoses such as schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, psychotic disorder, NOS, or other disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder that often have psychotic features almost feels like a life sentence. The reality is that psychotic disorders are very complex and sometimes difficult to identify and treat. Treatment is often ineffective (therapy, medication, alternative medicine, etc), patience is wearing thin, and money is being drained by high medical bills, 302s, or ineffective procedures such as electroconvulsive therapy. To make matters worse, some psychotic disorders are also accompanied by depression, anxiety, phobias, PTSD, or other disorders. Even more, stressors, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or socio-economic status can make symptoms worse.
When most of us think of schizophrenia or psychosis we don’t think of genius. Much of this is due to a lack of knowledge about the illness, while another small portion of confusion may be due to the fact that society is rarely educated to the multiple sides of an illness. Society is either not educated to mental illness at all or educated only to the pathology of an illness. If you read most of my articles on the web, you are probably familiar with the fact that I often explore the gray areas of mental illness and mental health topics. But sadly, most online platforms take a black/white perspective. This is why many of us remain confused about mental illness and cannot grasp the fact that some people, with severe mental illness, can come across as very well-adjusted in society. This is why when a tragedy occurs at the hands of someone suffering from delusions or hallucinations we hear people say “but he was so intelligent and kind,” or “she was so social and open.” We must keep in mind that there is more to people than we know and more to them than what meets the eye.
John Nash (who died tragically in a car crash May 23, 2015) is a prime example. His long and chronic battle with schizophrenia inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind in which Nash was played by actor Russell Crowe, whose producers reconstructed, through great art and prowess, the complexities of Nash’s mind, relationships, and life. Nash was a prisoner of his own mind and genius. He could deconstruct a complex mathematical dichotomy in seconds and later, fall victim to his own delusions and hallucinations. He was highly paranoid, often believing that he was a part of a bigger plot of the government to steal his ideas and use his genius. His thinking patterns were irrational, his emotions were labile, and his beliefs were tainted by his paranoid and delusional thinking. His wife, Alicia, suffered along with him as she attempted to separate his intelligence from his illness. Her life with Nash felt like a nightmare during the early stages of his illness. Trying to understand how someone with such intellectual prowess could be so ill placed her own emotions and her own sanity in jeopardy. Can you relate? Do you know someone like John Nash?
Many of us who know someone like John Nash would either state that the person has Asperger’s Disorder or has no mental illness at all. We would find it difficult to acknowledge genius and mental illness at the same time. This, in the world of psychology, is referred to as cognitive dissonance. We struggle to hold two opposing views in our mind at the same time. We choose one side over the other because we cannot understand two opposing theories that may be correct. This is the problem that keeps many of us in the dark about mental illness in general.
As a result, I have highlighted 4 things around Nash’s story that should encourage us to examine mental illness (by examining the gray areas) a little closer than we do. Exploring these topics opens the door for greater understanding:
- He claimed that he miraculously overcame schizophrenia: Interestingly, some people believe that they can”overcome” or “outgrown” their mental health conditions as they age. In the 1980s, John Nash sent a letter via email to a friend and stated “I emerged from irrational thinking.” Whether this is true or not is a topic of debate, but he certainly believed that he no longer had schizophrenia. Before he died May 23rd, he lived his life as one who “recovered” from chronic and severe symptoms of schizophrenia without medication. This is an interesting phenomenon as many people never recover. Did he recover or did something else happen that we are not aware of? Could he have been misdiagnosed? Could something else have triggered “brief” psychotic symptoms?
- He confirms the need for protective factors: Nash was not only supported by a wife who showed him unconditional love, even long after they divorced, but he also had supportive colleagues who helped him with housing, promotions, and finding employment. In a previous article on childhood trauma, I list the various risk and protective factors that can affect children in the long-term. Nash had wonderful protective factors that “protected” him from the severe and devastating effects of schizophrenia. The majority of individuals who have severe and chronic psychiatric illnesses end up incarcerated, homeless, or murdered. According to The Treatment Advocacy Center, between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals with severe mental illness are homeless. This is often the biggest problem for individuals with severe mental illness.
- He confirms we know very little about mental illness: Even after years of study, research, and interviews with people like Nash, we are unable to fully explain why some people seem to recover from severe mental illness, why severe mental illness and genius seem to go hand and hand, and why we, as a society, cannot appropriately treat and support individuals like Nash.
- Even though Nash prompted the idea that he “recovered,” we MUST be careful not to believe that most people will “recover” so much that we ignore the seriousness of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders: It’s so very easy to fall prey to the romanticism of Nash’s story. But we must be careful not to overestimate his so-called recovery and to underestimate the possibility of recovery. We must be balanced in how we examine his life and question what may have contributed to his “recovery.”
There is so much that we do not know about Nash’s life story. We lack a lot of information about childhood experiences (which may include some protective factors as well), his marriage, and his social connections. We must also consider the fact that Nash is very different from many individuals with schizophrenia. He won the Nobel Prize, was a professor at a prestigious college, had access to money and people who would support him financially, and was acknowledged for his genius and illness. His story is not common and it does not reflect the truth of many everyday citizens. His story sets him apart from many individuals who are struggling with psychosis and who may not have access to protective factors. Being balanced entails being mindful of the fact that Nash’s life is very much a fantasy for many individuals who are suffering with schizophrenia.
If you are interested in learning more about John Nash’s life, visit PBS.org.
As always, I wish you well
Photo by Cea.