The Upside of Mental Illness
D. B. Ryen
Who could forget that movie A Beautiful Mind? It won four Academy Awards in 2002, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film was based on the biography of John Nash Jr., a brilliant mathematician whose landmark contributions were pivotal in economics and applied mathematics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for what would the Nash Equilibrium. Later, his groundbreaking approach to differential equations and geometry landed him the American Mathematical Society’s Leroy P. Steele Prize, the top US award for mathematics. Nash also received the prestigious Abel Prize, the top global award for mathematics, shortly before his death in 2015. Throughout his career, Nash opted to select an unconventional path, tackling problems of his own choosing rather than being directed where to work. His formulas are widely considered to be fundamental in the mathematical fields of game theory, geometry, and differential equations.
However, during those decades of research and teaching, Nash’ journey with mental illness was similarly unconventional. His struggle with paranoid delusions were clearly apparent by 1959, at age 30, causing all sorts of problems. Nash was convinced a secret society of communists was out to get him, which all men who wore red ties were a part of. Additionally, he was constantly searching for signs of divine revelation, believing he had a special purpose to defeat this evil power. His symptoms got so bad that during a lecture at Columbia University was entirely incomprehensible. Soon afterwards he was admitted to a psychiatric facility and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
After his release, Nash avoided taking antipsychotic medications, instead opting to regain control of his life through rational thinking. In keeping with his passion for game theory (a branch of applied mathematics that deals with the economy), he likened the psychosis in his mind to a union of workers going on strike. Unfortunately, this approach led to a long road to recovery. With his mental illness so severe (and inadequately treated), he was unable to work for years on end. Nash’s marriage also failed, although he later lived with his ex-wife as a boarder.
When I had been long enough hospitalized I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances and return to mathematical research… Gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation.
Through rational thinking (and many psychotic relapses) he finally gained control over his paranoid delusions and was allowed to resume his work. He even rekindled the relationship with his ex-wife (whom he lived with), remarrying her in 2001.
John Nash’s life was far from easy, but his contribution to applied mathematics cannot be understated. Although some may argue he could have accomplished even more if he hadn’t been so afflicted by mental illness, the same characteristics that allowed him to tackle highly complex math problems also predisposed him to paranoid delusions. His brilliance was only possible because of his troubled mind. John Nash didn’t achieve greatness in spite of his mental illness but because of it.
And he’s not the only one.
* * *
Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize twice, each in a separate field (Physics and Chemistry). Her groundbreaking work in radioactivity opened whole new fields of scientific discovery and application. Selflessly, she refrained from patenting her techniques so the global scientific community could benefit from them.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
And yet, at a time when the sciences were dominated by men, she had to work all the harder as a woman to be recognized for her contribution to science. In fact, it was only upon the insistence of her husband that she be co-awarded her first Nobel Prize, even though the bulk of the research was actually done by her. Curie was also involved in humanitarian efforts during World War I, deploying mobile radiology vehicles near the front-lines and producing sterilizing solutions to treat infected wounds. She even tried to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French war effort. However, Curie’s brilliance, determination, and altruism were only possible because of her obsessive personality, which was also prone to recurrent episodes of depression, something she struggled with her whole life. For Marie Curie, as with John Nash, mental struggles went hand in hand with greatness.
Around the same time Curie was leading a scientific revolution in the field of radioactivity, Mahatma Gandhi was leading a social revolution in India. In a country suffering from inequality, poverty, and imperialism, Gandhi encouraged nonviolent resistance to push for civil rights. He worked tirelessly to expand women’s rights, abolish the caste system, reduce hunger, and promote Indian independence from Great Britain. Like Curie, Gandhi also suffered from depression and anxiety, and even attempted suicide as a young man. However, his mental illness was irrevocably tied to his determination, as he said of himself,
Mahatma Gandhi was depressed. He also pioneered the politics of nonviolent resistance. I believe these two facts are related.
Again, Gandhi achieved greatness because of his mental health struggles not in spite of them.
Decades later, another revolutionary would follow in his footsteps. Martin Luther King Jr. was arguably the most influential leader of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. Taking Gandhi’s approach, King also advocated for nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in opposition to racially discriminatory laws. His impassioned sermons and speeches were legendary, like “I Have A Dream”, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Also like Gandhi, MLK also suffered from severe depression. Anguished over the death of his grandmother, he attempted suicide at the age of 12. During his civil rights efforts, he kept his mental illness a closely-guarded secret over fears his opponents would use it against him, but his familiarity with suffering and mental distress made him even more effective as a civil rights leader.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
The perseverance he developed during his struggle with depression seemed to be instrumental in solidifying his resolution to fight for racial equality.
At the same time MLK was campaigning for equal rights, another mental health sufferer was trying to diffuse the extreme tensions of the Cold War. In 1962, the US installed nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey, well within striking distance of the USSR, and so Russia installed its own nuclear missiles in Cuba. This led to escalating tensions between the USA and USSR, with American President John F. Kennedy being advised to launch air strikes on Cuban soil to disrupt the construction of Soviet missile silos. This likely would have triggered nuclear war between the two superpowers. Instead, JFK opted for less a aggressive course of action - blockading Cuban ports to prevent further military supplies from being delivered. One wouldn’t expect someone with Bipolar Disorder (which leads to manic episodes of high energy, risk taking, and impulsive behavior) to keep such a level head in extreme stress. However, JFK’s calm demeanor when faced with nuclear holocaust saved the day. His early struggles with impulse control prepared him for leading the US through the heights of the Cold war.
Another president’s mental illness was similarly instrumental in shaping American history. Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, led his country through civil war, and modernized the US economy. His Gettysburg Address is still considered one of the most influential speeches ever. However, Lincoln suffered from bouts of severe depression, especially after the deaths of three of his sons. He also had the difficult job of supporting a wife with her own debilitating psychiatric issues. And yet Lincoln’s unflappable demeanor and determination brought his country through some of its bloodiest years. He is widely considered to be the greatest president of the United States.
Across the Atlantic, one of the greatest Prime Ministers of Great Britain also had severe depression. In the years leading up to World War II, Neville Chamberlain (who had no known psychiatric conditions) was at the helm of Britain and sought to avoid war at all costs, but his optimism and appeasement of Nazi Germany accomplished nothing to keep the peace in Europe. In contrast, Winston Churchill’s realistic (pessimistic?) outlook recognized Hitler’s intentions for what they truly were. When war was finally declared, Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister and resolutely led the United Kingdom through some of its darkest days. With his ever-present “black dog” hounding him (as he called his depression), he was instrumental in Britain surviving the Blitz, D-Day, the liberation of Europe, and negotiating Germany’s surrender. Years later, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writing about the war.
The potential greatness of mental health sufferers isn’t restricted to politics - some of the most gifted artists have similarly benefited from a troubled mind. Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most influential painters in history, struggled with severe depression and psychosis all his life, spending extensive time in psychiatric hospitals. He even cut off part of his own ear in a rage before finally committing suicide at age 37. Widely considered a madman, his paintings are now among the most expensive ever sold. Or consider Ernest Hemingway, the American author who penned some of the greatest books and poems in history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. However, he struggled with depression, paranoia, chronic pain, and alcoholism before finally committing suicide at the age of 61. Both Van Gogh and Hemingway were prototypical "tortured artists" whose mental health issues allowed for the creation of timeless works of art.
In the world of sports, manic episodes associated with Bipolar disorder can drive athletes to achieve incredible results. The professional surfer Andy Irons was a prime example of this. His extreme ambition fueled tireless training that elevated his abilities on a surfboard above the competition. Consequently, he won virtually every major surfing championship in the span of a decade, including three consecutive world titles from 2002 to 2004. However, his mental disposition didn’t come without a cost, especially since he spurned any attempts to seek treatment. Irons had frequent outbursts of rage, which wreaked havoc on professional and personal relationships alike. And between the highs of his manic episodes, he experienced profound depression, often regretting his destructive behavior and the pain caused to those he cared about. He also struggled with substance abuse, which sadly led to his untimely death at age 32.
Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, also benefited from the tireless energy of mental health issues. He is the most decorated Olympic athlete ever, having won 28 medals (23 gold), holding numerous world records. However, the reason he first got into swimming was as an outlet for his high energy, having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as a child. In addition, he also struggled with depression, even considering suicide after competing in the 2012 Olympic Games. Again, it’s not in spite of his mental illness that he achieved greatness but because of it. If Phelps had not had ADHD perhaps he never would have started swimming competitively in the first place.
* * *
So, what can we learn from all these high achievers? First, as we've said multiple times now, the troubled mind they all experienced inevitably led to great difficulty (and sometimes disaster) but was also a source of greatness. As we saw, the constant low mood that comes with depression can make leaders and thinkers more resilient to crisis. Mania and hyperactivity, when focused appropriately, can enable people to soar to extraordinary heights. Even madness (i.e. psychosis) can allow someone to see solutions or beauty others don’t consider. Mental illness is often seen as a disability, but throughout history it has actually been the source of great ability for some remarkable individuals. Does that make it easy? Of course not, but these rain clouds aren't without their silver lining. Indeed, the world owes a great deal to some extraordinary men and women who discovered solutions, set records, created masterpieces, led their people, and persevered through crisis. Paradoxically, sometimes it's only those already burdened with their own mental health issues that are able to relieve the burdens of countless others worldwide.
Second, it’s clear that drug and alcohol abuse is common among those with psychiatric disorders. Sufferers often use them to self-medicate their symptoms: alcohol and marijuana improve anxiety as soon as they’re consumed; the euphoria of injecting opioids can instantly relieve severe depression, albeit temporarily; even crystal meth can turn down the voices in a psychotic head. However, the abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol is never a good idea. Addiction, withdrawal, organ damage, blood-borne illnesses, organized crime, and/or overdose are inevitable. Thus the danger of using substances to control psychiatric symptoms far outweigh the short-term benefits.
Which brings us to our third point: the importance of psychiatric treatment. Just because a mentally ill mind can be the source of greatness doesn’t mean psychiatric treatment should be avoided. All psychiatric disorders cause impaired functioning of some sort. In fact, all of our aforementioned heroes experienced times when they were non-functional due to episodes of severe psychiatric symptoms. They became debilitated as their poor mental health completely disrupted their lives and work, in addition to straining relationships. No psychiatric treatment plan is perfect, but a competent health care team should be able to reduce severe symptoms and allow everyone to be functional in normal society. Finding an effective and well-tolerated treatment regime - whether it’s through medication, counseling, and/or lifestyle changes - is crucial to living productive lives, let alone achieving greatness.
Finally, those with severe mental illness have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. Whether death comes by suicide, overdose, or dangerous behavior, mental illness can be a killer. Who knows what else Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Irons could have accomplished if their lives weren't cut short. And we would have never experienced the global freedoms we now have if Gandhi and MLK had been successful at ending their lives as adolescents. Again, finding adequate treatment is crucial to living long enough to realize one’s full potential.
Most of us are familiar with the burden of mental health disorders on individuals and society as a whole, but a troubled mind may have the potential for greatness far beyond what “normal” people are capable of. History has proved this time and again in the lives of some of the greatest leaders, scientists, artists, writers, and athletes to ever live. Theirs are truly beautiful minds. We need not feel so sorry for such people, because they have diamonds hidden in their rough psyches. However, it takes much understanding and patience from those around them, plus a customized treatment plan to uncover the greatness within. You never know when another John Nash will apply his crazy, brilliant mind to an unsolvable problem and lead the world into a new age.
© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, February 2023.