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Nervous Breakdowns - Research News
The nervous breakdown, the mysterious affliction
that has been a staple of American life and literature for more than a century,
has been wiped out by the combined forces of psychiatry, pharmacology and
But people keep breaking down anyway. Margot Kidder, Philip Roth, William
Styron, Kitty Dukakis, Mike Wallace, Bobby Fischer, Betty Ford, Joan Rivers,
just to name some of the famous -- all experienced a wrenching break from
this world, a kind of living death. "The mind begins to feel aggrieved,
stricken, and the muddied thought processes register the distress of an
organ in convulsion. . . . It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk,"
wrote William Styron about his experience. Kitty Dukakis recalled lying
in bed doing nothing: "I couldn't get up and get dressed, but I couldn't
Most psychiatrists sniff at the term nervous breakdown, considering it to be as inexact and unscientific as its predecessors: the vapors, neurasthenia, spinal irritation, neuralgic disease, nervous prostration. "Patients preferred the idea of a physical illness, an illness of the nervous system, to a psychological illness," says Edward Shorter, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Toronto. "That way it wasn't inherited. It was a little fig leaf that psychiatrists used for about 100 years to get patients to come to them." With the Freudian revolution, psychiatrists began to realize that nervous breakdowns and other mental disorders were diseases of the mind, not of the spine and peripheral nerves.
Yet among the general public, the term nervous breakdown is still widely
used and understood to mean snapping under extreme pressure. In a 1995
survey by Prevention magazine on the subject of stress, 13% of the respondents
said they were "two steps ahead of a nervous breakdown." And
in a new movie called "Losing Chase," a wife and mother played
by Helen Mirren returns home after a lengthy recuperation from a nervous
breakdown. So profound is her enervation that she struggles even to tap
the ash from her cigarette.
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