in Thinking about psychiatry

‘Nervous Breakdown’

My last previous post has got me thinking: what exactly is a ‘nervous breakdown’.  I muddled through five years of medical school without the curiousness to find this out, and still don’t know exactly.  The term certainly has no precise psychiatric or psychopathological use.  The Oxford English dictionary defines nervous breakdown as: ‘noun a period of mental illness resulting from severe depression or stress’ which could mean just about anything.  It also begs* us to consider the nature of ‘mental illness’ which is a difficult question in itself.  Always available to shine light were once darkness reigned, my favourite book, Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary allows us:


breakdown,nervous A popular, inexact term for the appearance of neurotic or psychotic symptoms of enough severity to impair significantly the person’s ability to cope with demands of his or her current life.  The term implies a relatively sudden onset of disability and/or readily discernible fall from a previously maintained level of performance of adaptation. 


Good enough for Robert Campbell, M.D. good enough for me.  Why it’s under ‘breakdown, nervous’ rather than ‘nervous breakdown’ is something I may ask him if ever we meet. As a bogus pseudo-medical term it has much company;  ‘critical but stable’ is a particular favourite of mine in this regard.  The use of nervous breakdown is euphemistic and perhaps its use widespread because of a desire to root something as frightening and unknowable as mental illness in something physical and accessible – ‘nerves’. 

*You’ll note that I did not use the phrasing ‘begs the question’ here.  My usage of this phrase has been thrown into confusion following being introduced to the website

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