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Life Should Imitate the Art of 'A Beautiful Mind'

Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

February 16, 2002|WAYNE MUNCHEL | Wayne Munchel is the director of recovery services at the Village Integrated Service Agency in Long Beach.

The mental health community has long bemoaned the demeaning caricatures of people with mental illnesses. Hollywood has contributed to the problem. That is why it is important to celebrate Ron Howard's brilliant film, "A Beautiful Mind."

The picture, based on the story of John Nash, who despite his schizophrenia went on to win a Nobel Prize, powerfully conveys the message that recovery is possible and that "extraordinary things can happen."

The myth that mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are hopeless, progressively deteriorating diseases is pervasive in our culture.

While several studies have thoroughly debunked these harmful stereotypes, the insidious stigma persists. As a result, people suffering from these treatable conditions often avoid seeking help.

When they do have the courage to seek services, they are frequently labeled and discriminated against by employers, landlords, friends and even family.

Adding insult to injury, they are consigned to marginal lives of low expectations, unemployment, poverty and isolation.

"A Beautiful Mind" compellingly illustrates some of the principles of recovery from mental illness. The main character's wife withstands tremendous anguish and trauma to stand by her husband's side and instills both the hope and belief that he can transcend his illness.

People with mental illness desperately need hope and someone who believes in them.

The Nash character summons all his strength to rejoin his former community (the Princeton campus) to attempt to reconnect with ex-colleagues and friends and try to again find purpose in his life.

People diagnosed with mental illness must face this harrowing journey as well to reclaim lost roles and lost relationships.

The Nash character learns through repeated painful experiences that some of his symptoms may never subside and that he must cope by "choosing to ignore" his persistent delusions and hallucinations.

Similarly, many people with a psychiatric disability have come to realize that they can't wait for the cure before working on their life goals; they recognize that working on their dreams while coping with symptoms is part of their rehabilitation.

The mental health community will take a special interest in the Academy Awards on March 24. Just a few golden statues will seem like further affirmation that the time has come for people with psychiatric disabilities to step out from the darkness.

Although not all people diagnosed with a mental illness will be future Nobel Prize winners or have movies made about their lives, countless numbers will heroically beat the odds to lead lives of hope, purpose and meaning.

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