Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Beautiful Mind Revisted

A little more than three years ago, I went to see Ron Howard’s movie entitled A Beautiful Mind. For those who haven’t seen this movie, it is a story about John Nash, a mathematical genius who achieves career success despite his ongoing struggles with a serious mental illness. Despite his disability, Nash worked for a prestigious university and went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1994 for his contributions to the field of economics. Yeah, it was another one of those "feel good" stories about the triumph of human spirit over adversity. However, what completely blew me away about this movie was the striking number of similarities between the main character, John Nash, and a very good friend of mine. I would like to share his story.

By his own account, Dan Brodhead flew home from college in the 70s, an ashamed and defeated young man. After all, he wasn’t just leaving any college, but Yale, a prized Ivy League school where he was majoring in the field of physics. After the onset of a persistent thought disorder, Dan found himself unable to function effectively nor manage the rigors of his academic studies. On his long plane ride home to the Twin Cities, Dan wondered about what he would say to his mother and relatives. How would he explain his need to leave Yale and these disturbing changes in his thoughts and behavior? What began with promise, challenge, and excitement, was now unfolding in bitter disappointment.
Like a misguided thief, serious mental illness (SMI) can completely rob people of their time and dreams. Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (a thought disorder) and major depression or bipolar disorder (common mood disorders) have been known to inflict serious emotional pain, social stigma, and lifetime of poverty for a majority of people with these brain diseases. The symptoms of mental illness often strike unannounced when young adults are in their mid to late 20s or early 30s and preparing to enter their careers. Although its effects are often debilitating, SMI can be effectively managed and need not completely derail the dreams of individuals who are diagnosed with an illness.
Despite his educational setback, Dan went home to the Twin Cities to undergo mental health treatment for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A determined young man, he returned once again after treatment to Yale to continue pursuit of his degree. It never came easy, and after a five-year struggle with his symptoms, Dan finally completed his doctoral studies. In 1972, Dr. Daniel Brodhead graduated from Yale University with his Ph. D. in Physics.
It would be a nice ending to my story to say that Dan’s determination was rewarded with a satisfying career in his chosen field of study. However, Dan’s story does not end here. Rather, his life journey takes on many unexpected twists and turns. The fact is Dan’s SMI grew worse over time and he was unable to secure employment within his profession for many years to come.
For more than three decades, he was encouraged by mental health and vocational rehabilitation professionals to give up on his dream and accept that he was only capable of working in jobs that required lower levels of skill and emotional stress. This highly intelligent gentleman with a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale University spent his next 30 years vacillating between periods of unemployment and varied unskilled labor positions such as pumping gas and assembly work. The work was unsatisfying, but it gave Dan a more stable life structure and earned income.
Dan worked very hard to get a grip on his mental illness. Despite medications and intensive mental heath treatment, he was institutionalized many times during his adulthood. In his times of greatest desperation, Dan tried to take his own life to erase the mental anguish, confusion, and embarrassment he endured while living with this chronic and debilitating condition. It was during these most fragile years that Dan found comfort through his faith and support from family and friends. He dedicated himself to recovery and did his very best to manage his illness without undue dependency on others.
Dan also searched for deeper answers to fundamental questions concerning the purpose of his life. He found it helpful to journal about his thoughts and insights. Dan reflected on his journey with me: "One of my greatest challenges was dealing with people who exerted a moral judgment on me. This was hard to take and I thought I was the worst person on the face of the earth." Dan wrote and produced two monographs about his life.
World-renowned physicist, Albert Einstein once said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." I believe Einstein would be proud of Dan for understanding the need for both. Dan knew that a majority of people in his circumstances were either unemployed or underemployed and not using their full potential for vocational or economic gain. In 1987, he approached me with an idea that he had been thinking about. Dan wanted to help engage career ladder jobs for adults who live with SMI. Dan surmised there were thousands of adults with SMI in the Twin Cities who were not using their education, training, or vocational skills to their fullest potential.
A colleague and I asked Dan to mobilize a group of mental health consumers and community professionals with a similar interest to help build a program framework for assisting unemployed and underemployed people to get back in touch with career goals. This group called itself Minnesota Mainstream (MM). The MM group was successful in planning, writing, and obtaining a federal demonstration grant from the Department of Education to launch Dan’s original idea. Due to his creative abilities and grasp of our project objectives, Dan was the unanimous and logical choice to become MM’s first project director.
From the onset, MM was run under the administrative umbrella of my employer, Rise, Incorporated. However, MM’s policies were guided by a consumer management committee. The program was managed by Dan and MM’s employment services were provided by a team of professionals who were mental health consumers themselves. MM helped to introduce the value of recruiting and involving business mentors in support of job placement candidates (called associates). This project also advanced the idea that customizing and negotiating jobs with the help of employers would help more people work in careers where they have high levels of interest, education, and skills.
During a period of 15 years, MM and its successor called Career Trek, placed hundreds of adults with SMI into a variety of career ladder jobs. The average hourly wage for associates of these programs ranges from $10.00 to $14.00 exceeding the wage performance norms for most mental health employability programs of its kind. Further, MM established a new vision by encouraging associates, not to lower their expectations, but to raise their career aspirations in alignment with career interests and marketable talents. This recommendation is counterintuitive to the types of guidance most people with SMI receive as a part of their mental health treatment.
Despite its success, Dan chose to leave MM after two years of employment and a period of introspective thinking. He shared his rationale for leaving with me: "Don, when you get down to the basics I am essentially a trained physicist who is trying to do the job of a human services manager. I think the time has come for me to heed the MM strategy and follow my own dreams. I am hoping that I can find a job doing the work that I was trained to do."
After leaving MM, Dan began to put his new found skills into action. He decided to get back in touch with some of his classmates from many years ago at Yale. By now, many of them were well-connected professionals working in the field of physics. Dan reestablished a relationship with a former classmate who directs the program in Theoretical Physics at Texas A&M University. Through negotiation, he was able to secure a post-doctoral fellowship that would allow him to work on a number of theoretical physics problems. The University established a subcontract with Dan and agreed to the idea of a virtual work setting so Dan could telecommute from his home in the Twin Cities. By mutual agreement, Dan would spend his time working on research assignments and communicate his findings with the University’s faculty via e-mail, phone, and fax.
After 30 long years, Dan was finally working in the career field where he had received his prestigious Ph.D. training. It was never easy and it was necessary for Dan to reacquaint himself with contemporary physics theory and research methods. However, it was an effective partnership and perfect match to his job interests and personal circumstances. Dan’s customized employment arrangement with Texas A&M lasted for seven years until his retirement at the age of 62.
Unlike John Nash, Dan did not achieve national acclaim nor did he win a Nobel Prize for his research in theoretical physics. Then again, John Nash did not open closed doors to competitive employment for hundreds of people living with SMI. Under Dan’s leadership, MM and its staff were honored by the Minnesota Rehabilitation Association with its Consumer Empowerment Award for its innovative work in breaking the glass ceiling for people with SMI. Under Dan’s progressive vision, MM introduced new practices and possibilities that slowly drew national attention. In 1990, Minnesota Mainstream was cited as a promising employment service in the Torrey Report, a nationally acclaimed report on emerging mental health practices in the United States. Also, MM was awarded exemplary program status by the North Central Regional Information Exchange in 1993. And finally, MM’s program service model was replicated in three states to offer similar hope and service innovations for adults with SMI living in other locales.
There are a number of striking and coincidental factors overlapping the personal lives and career successes of John Nash and Dan Brodhead. Perhaps the greatest similarity is that neither man would bow to mental illness, nor allow it to extinguish his indomitable spirit. Indeed, both men seemed to draw strength from their greatest weakness. And both men recognized the importance of customizing employment to keep their career dreams alive.


Blogger JohnN-T said...


I never knew Dan B's whole story, just parts of it; quite inspiring. Great start for your blog, too. As an interesting FYI, my mother lived literally across the street from John Nash in downtown Princeton, before they moved out to Princeton Junction; used to see him walking all over the campus.

3:52 PM  

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