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Nervous breakdown

Art work depicting a mental illness.

Art work depicting a mental illness.

Credits:Chris Nurse, Wellcome Images.

Today we sometimes speak vaguely of someone ‘having’ a nervous breakdown. In the 1800s, however, the term referred to a specific medical disorder which was emphatically a nervous illness, not a mental illness. The difference was subtle, but crucial - it kept patients out of asylums. Nervous breakdown was also known as nervous exhaustion, nervous collapse or neurasthenia. It was characterised by pain, weakness, migraine headaches and fatigue. The condition also included symptoms we now associate with depression. These included despair, hopelessness, a sense of uselessness and the inability to take pleasure in any aspect of life. Nervous breakdown struck men and women from all walks of life. It sometimes made them too weak to get out of bed for months at a time. Gradually, in the 1900s, it became part of the broader diagnostic category of neurosis, and disappeared from medical usage. But the term ‘nervous breakdown’ remained popular as a less stigmatised way to describe a debilitating but temporary episode of mental illness.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


M Gijswijt-Hofstra and R Porter (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001)

E Green Musselman, Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006)

J Oppenheim, ‘Shattered Nerves’: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)



A mental state associated with acute sadness. Activity can be decreased, especially interaction with others, and sleep, appetite, and concentration can also be disturbed.