Not a diagnosis so much as a euphemism, nervous breakdown is a term that was once widely used by the general public and the mass media, but rarely mentioned by psychiatrists or clinical psychologists, at least among themselves. It is an inexact term that has been popular since the early days of clinical practice, primarily as a term for patients to use so as not to stigmatize themselves with a psychiatric label. People simply prefer to be thought of as having a physical illness, a problem with the nervous system, rather than a psychological illness. In the early days of neurology and psychology, the diagnosis—often called neurasthenia, spinal irritation, neuralgic disease, or even “the vapors”—was believed to be a legitimate one, until it became clear that mental disorders were conditions of the mind rather than malfunctions of the nerves.
The term nervous breakdown survives today in its capacity as a nonspecific euphemism for psychological problems, especially among celebrities, with whom its set of possible meanings has expanded to include treatment substance abuse. Other possible definitions also include various anxiety disorders, major depression, and even psychotic episodes. Nervous breakdown is currently losing ground as the favored euphemism, however, to something even more vague and physical sounding: exhaustion (see also Brain).
- Barke, M., Fribush, R., and Stearns, P. N. “Nervous Breakdown in 20th-Century American Culture.” Journal of Social History, 33(3) (2000): 565–585.
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