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April 18, 2002

A Brilliant Madness Airs April 28th
PBS Documentary on John Nash, Jr. Provides Facts On Which
A Beautiful Mind Was Based

On-Line Forum Offers Discussion About Mental Illness, Science, Stigma,
Treatment, and Recovery

Arlington, VA-You may have already read the award-winning biography by Sylvia Nasar or seen the Oscar-winning movie produced by Ron Howard.

But now it's time to watch the PBS documentary as part of the American Experience history series: A Brilliant Madness: The Story of John Nash, premiering Sunday, April 28, 2002 at 9PM EST. (Check local listings). It's well worth the time.

A Brilliant Madness features interviews with the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, John Nash, Jr., talking about his experience with schizophrenia, as well with his wife, Alicia; sister Martha; eldest son, John Stier; and close friends and colleagues. In addition, it uses family photographs and rare archival materials, as well as cinematic techniques-different from Hollywood-to represent Nash's world of paranoid delusions.

The documentary includes details of Nash's life that A Beautiful Mind (the movie) omitted, while validating the essential authenticity of Ron Howard's work. It also promises to provoke further national debate about mental illness, science, stigma, treatment and recovery.

Discussion of key issues will occur through an On-Line PBS Forum from Thursday, April 25 to Friday, May 3 on the documentary's Web site: pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash. Dozens of questions already are pouring in.

The forum panelists include:

  • Alex Beam, columnist for The Boston Globe, which last year won NAMI's Media Award for science and health reporting. He is the author of Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital, where Nash originally was treated.
  • Laurie Flynn of Columbia University's Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and former NAMI executive director.
  • Frederick J. Frese III, Ph.D., retired psychology director in the Ohio State Hospital system and former NAMI vice-president, who like Nash has overcome schizophrenia and had similar experiences.
  • Irving Gottesman, Ph.D., senior fellow in psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origin of Madness.
  • Raquel E. Gur, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychology, neurology and radiology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of an interdisciplinary program seeking to understand and treat schizophrenia's complexities.
  • John Hsiao, M.D. of the National Institute of Mental Health, editor of the Schizophrenia Bulletin and project director for clinical trials comparing new antipsychotic medications being used to treat schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease.
  • E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and author of Surviving Schizophrenia and The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present
  • Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill.

"Madness can be an escape," Nash declared in an interview. "If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better. In madness, I thought I was the most important person in the world." At the peak of his career, Nash came to believe that he was the Emperor of Antarctica. His wife, Alicia, committed him against his will to both private and public psychiatric hospitals and at one point, with the help of the State Department, had him deported from Europe back to the United States.

"To some extent, sanity is a form of conformity," Nash declares. "And to some extent, people who are insane are non-conformists and society and their family wish that they would live what appear to be useful lives." He and Alicia divorced, but then moved back together and remarried. In the 1980s, Nash's recovery began. The precise factors responsible are a mystery.

During the Oscar competition, in an article published in USA Today, PBS panelist Robert Whitaker criticized A Beautiful Mind for having Nash say he was taking "newer medications" at a time when he actually had stopped. In a published response, NAMI National Board President Jim McNulty criticized Whitaker's omission of the critical warning that discontinuing medication involves major risks. Like Whitaker, McNulty cited Nasar's biography, which indicates that the only times that Nash was "relatively free of hallucinations, delusions and the erosion of will," prior to recovery, was when he was taking antipsychotic medication. Significantly, McNulty warned that growing evidence suggests that without medication, following a person's early psychotic episodes, the risk of permanent brain damage increases with every recurrence.

But the exchange also revealed common ground.

NAMI noted Whitaker's support for "comprehensive care: counseling, social-support services, and the selective use of anti-psychotic medications," around which substantial agreement has existed. Medications always should be used selectively. One size does not fit all. And McNulty emphasized other key factors for recovery:

  • The importance of individual dignity and respect
  • The importance of faith and hope, including that of family members
  • Community reintegration and social supports, particularly by employers
  • Cognitive therapy strategies, such as that Nash used during the later stage of his recovery to ignore hallucinations.
Both A Beautiful Mind and the documentary reflect such factors. The PBS Web site also provides additional material for discussion:
  • Access to an in-depth interview with Nash
  • Behind-the-scenes perspective from the documentary's producer who talks about what it was like to interview Nash, a mathematical genius, as well as person with schizophrenia
  • Information about the Nash Equilibrium and the Prisoner's Dilemma and the impact of game theory in mathematics and economics on everyday life.
  • Discussion of Hollywood's past portrayals of mental illness
  • A timeline of mental illness treatment therapies from ancient Greece to the present.
A Brilliant Madness is well-worth watching and its Web site well-worth browsing.

Consumers, family members and other should check the On-Line Forum each day and participate by submitting questions either to the entire panel or individual ones. PBS intends to choose the eight most frequently asked questions-or the most interesting-each day and distribute them among the panelists to answer. Questions and answers will be posted once a day during the weeklong course of the forum.

 


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