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An Analysis of Mental Health Stigma in "A Beautiful Mind"

Updated on October 11, 2016
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Peter Hillson is a third-year student pursuing a combined honours degree in Political Science and Biology at McMaster University.



This report will be discussing the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe. The film follows the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Throughout the film we witness Nash’s many delusions and hallucinations, as well as the hardships that his illness brings about for his personal, professional, and family life. The film gives us a window into what the experience would have been like for Nash, his family, and his friends, as he was diagnosed, underwent treatment, and was finally rehabilitated.

While A Beautiful Mind is successful in portraying Nash’s life in a dramatic and emotionally resonant way, it also inadvertently promotes stigma both towards the mentally ill and towards mental health workers. By glamorizing the extreme elements of mental illness and its treatments, the film misrepresents most people’s experience with mental illness. Unfortunately, this creates an inaccurate or exaggerated version of reality. This kind of misrepresentation promotes false ideas and stigma about the mentally ill and their experiences.


This film perpetuates stigma towards the mentally ill in a few ways. Primarily, by making it easy for viewers to associate John Nash’s extraordinary ability in mathematics with his schizophrenia, it glorifies the idea that mentally ill people have special abilities or unique talents. There are a number of scenes in which Nash appears to have an almost magical ability to spot patterns and make links between evidence. For example, when called to The Pentagon, he is able to decipher a wall of code simply by scanning it for several minutes. This kind of ability is well beyond the faculties of an average person and this film makes it exceedingly easy to associate these abilities with the mentally ill. In fact, when John Nash is first admitted to a mental institution, a psychiatrist proposes that his great success as a mathematician may be due entirely to his mental illness. In actuality, mental illness does not typically impart those who suffer from it with special abilities; more often than not, it only hinders their skills and success.

The Power of Will

In addition to this, the film enforces the damaging idea that mentally ill people can “will” themselves to overcome their illness. During a pivotal scene of the film, in which Nash’s wife must choose to whether to have him recommitted to a mental hospital, she expresses the notion that “maybe you can get better from in here”, first gesturing to his head and then to his heart. While there are a large portion of psychiatrists who believe that the mind plays a large role in recovery from mental illness, it is neither fair nor accurate to imply that mentally ill patients need only to will themselves better. From this point on it does not appear as though John Nash is taking any medication or undergoing any treatment and he is shown overcoming his illness through sheer self-control, ignoring his delusions and controlling his feelings. While this makes for a triumphant victory on screen, it is not the reality for the vast majority of mentally ill patients. Most cases of mental illness require a balance of medical treatment and therapy; miraculous feats of will are not something that we should expect from mentally ill people. Overall, this film portrays mentally ill people in a way that is not consistent with the reality of many cases. It tends to glamorize mental illness, giving viewers an unrealistic expectation of mentally ill people and leading to a greater level of stigma.

Mental Health Workers

Furthermore, this film promotes some of the stigma that surrounds mental health workers and medical treatments for mental health. While the workers are not openly hostile or unpleasant, they do subject Nash to a number of awful conditions. For example, scenes inside of the mental hospital reveal that John Nash is being held in a stark white room with nothing but a bed and a toilet. This is much different from the reality of modern day mental hospitals and creates a perception of cruelty towards patients. Furthermore, we also see Nash subjected to insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, both of which are depicted as painful and possibly harmful. Nash’s wife views his treatment through a window, crying as her husband thrashes in a bed with a look of intense pain on his face. Both treatments are falsely portrayed and convey the idea that mental health workers often expose patients to needless pain and suffering. In reality, mental institutions are not a dangerous or harmful


Finally, this film also promotes the idea that medications are an inessential part of recovering from mental health conditions. For example when Jon says that his medication “makes it hard to see the answer”, and then proceeds to re-enter society without being medicated, it makes it seem as though drugs that target mental illness are useless and possibly detrimental. In reality, we have seen that drugs play a large part in combatting mental illness and are supported by science. Drugs are not dangerous or pointless when treating mental illness. To summarize, this film makes mental health workers and hospitals seem worse than they are, and provides a false impression of the treatments used on mentally ill patients.


In conclusion, “A Beautiful Mind” makes many missteps towards accurately capturing mental illness and the treatment around it. By exaggerating certain elements and promoting false perceptions of mental illness, the film worsens stigma associated with mental health. Mental health in film should be portrayed as truthfully as possible, without embellishment or grandiosity. We should not sacrifice what mental illness truly entails in order to construct an attractive narrative. Mental illness needs to be understood for what it is, not what we imagine it to be.


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