The rise, evolution and ambiguous decline of the nervous breakdown in the United States open an interesting window on pervasive anxieties.
1] For reasons that will become obvious, nervous breakdown tends to slip through the cracks of medically-oriented social and cultural histories.
It begins by focusing on the range of functions the nervous breakdown concept served, from its apparent origins around 1901 through its amplifications from the 1930s to the 1960s.
The most interesting feature of the nervous breakdown concept, if not at its origins at least quite soon, involves its decidedly ambivalent relationship to professional medicine and psychology.
Nervous breakdown would revive, expand, and more widely popularize these 19th century concepts.
It is vital to note that outright collapse was not usually posited, one of the distinctions from the later nervous breakdown idea that in so many respects is hard to separate from its neurasthenic progenitor; but worry about collapse could be part of the condition, blurring this boundary.
As with nervous breakdown subsequently, neurasthenia was widely publicized, from the 1880s onward.
Unlike nervous breakdown, neurasthenia generated hosts of suggested, professionally-sponsored remedies, including rest cures under the guidance of doctors and the burgeoning group of mental health professionals.
The term nervous breakdown was introduced into this context in 1901, in a technical medical treatise, addressed to physicians, that in some ways harked back to earlier ideas of strain.
Attention to "shell shock" in World War I provided an additional ingredient, and by the 1920s, along with continued use of neurasthenia and stress or strain, nervous breakdown had clearly become part of a standard American vocabulary.
Early development of the nervous breakdown idea depended on a mixture of individual contributions and supporting events.
Nervous breakdown thus originated as a somewhat eccentric medical idea, though one which picked up earlier mechanistic thinking.
Nervous breakdown quickly embraced an array of meanings.
Even more than neurasthenia, though with great overlap, nervous breakdown began to cover a wide range of definitions, some of them in principle hard to reconcile.