In a 1935 article published in Fortune magazine, the “nervous breakdown” (while making mention of the more medical term “neurosis”) is described as being, “as widespread as the common cold and the chiefest source of misery in the modern world.”
Jerry Useem explains in his 2021 Atlantic article that the way the nervous breakdown was resolved was to take a break and to spend some much needed time to recover emotionally and mentally.
Useem argues that while the developments in the field of psychology have greatly improved the quality of treatments for mental illness, the loss of the ‘catch-all concept of the nervous breakdown is the downside. Essentially, there used to be a socially acceptable way to say, “I am emotionally and mentally used up, and I need a break.” Now, most people feel that in order for their feelings of burnout to be justified, they need the external validation of a diagnosis.
Of course, this isn’t to discredit therapy. Therapy is great and can and does help a lot of people with their emotional distress. But not everyone who deals with emotional burnout feels it as a result of a mental disorder. Being a person in this modern world is difficult, especially considering everything that happened during and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Youtuber Anna Akana puts it, the pandemic was “an entire year of us in survival mode.”
The way that most people have experienced the past two years, it hasn’t just been the pandemic that has made us this way. The pandemic didn’t send the world into its current mental health crisis just because of mask mandates and vaccinations. What it really did was highlight the worst of the systematic social issues that already existed, and accelerate them past the point that most people can cope with emotionally. On top of that, many were experiencing the loss of a loved one, the effects of isolation and any number of other incredibly distressing life events. The result is a near constant state of crisis.
And as Useem points out, the nervous breakdown is no longer available as a fallback. He writes that ultimately the benefit of announcing a nervous breakdown was that it “gave you license to withdraw, claiming an excess of industry or sensitivity or some other virtue. And crucially, it focused the cause of distress on the outside world and its unmeetable demands.” He goes on to argue that the nervous breakdown should be brought back in order to care for society’s collective need for rest.
There’s nothing wrong with needing a break every once in a while, and in fact it’s quite normal, especially considering the circumstances of being human right now. And perhaps the solution is the return of the nervous breakdown as a socially acceptable way to take a break and recover the emotional capacity to go on.