Why aren’t there any more “nervous breakdowns”?

June 4, 2008 | By | Reply More

This article at MSNBC explains the history of the term “nervous breakdown.” It’s rarely used now, except in pop culture.

The term — a vague catch-all phrase that could mean anything from a psychotic episode to having a bad day — is not a medical term, doctors say, but it was a popular one that was gentle, non-specific and therefore non-threatening, and could serve as a cover.

In previous decades, those with “nervous breakdowns” would simply disappear, because we had little understanding of what was causing the problem and few treatments for bringing the person “back.”

“The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years or so, in terms of our understanding of mental disorders,” said Dr. Darrel A. Regier, director of the American Psychiatric Association’s division of research. “When I was a kid, there were references to relatives or neighbors, who had a ‘nervous breakdown’ and had to go to a hospital, and dropped out for a period of time, and nobody would really be very specific about what the nature of the illness was.”

Treatments varied from the “rest cure,” isolation and preventing all stimulation in the 19th century (described by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her 1891 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”) to hydrotherapy, electric shock treatments, insulin treatment and lobotomy in the 20th century. Patients who were hospitalized often faced long-term commitments.

“People are no longer just disappearing from the community in the same way that they did when that term was coined and was in use,” Regier said. “The major emphasis now with the mentally ill is on recovery.”

Reading this article made me wonder whether we should bring back this non-specific term to enable over-stretched people to take a break from their routines, without the stigma of “mental illness,” in order to recharge.   This article also reminded me of a friend who recently went on a Catholic Jesuit retreat:  a 3-day stay at a 90-acre wooded compound where those attending bring no electronic devices and are discouraged from talking the entire time. The purpose is to meditate and pray intensely.   My friend said that he finds this to be a valuable experience (he attends once per year).



Category: Language, Medicine, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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