April 1935 was a nervous month. Unemployment in America stood at 20 percent. A potential polio vaccine was failing trials. The term Dust Bowl made its first appearance in newsprint. A thousand-mile storm carried away much of Oklahoma. And Fortune magazine introduced its readers to “The ‘Nervous Breakdown.’ ”
Soon reprinted as an 85-page book, the article cited experts “whose names loom largest in the fields of mental hygiene.” The takeaway? The nervous breakdown was deemed to be “as widespread as the common cold and the chiefest source of misery in the modern world.” Anyone could be susceptible; it could be precipitated by nearly anything, and it prevented one “from carrying on the business of normal living.” Resolution of the breakdown entailed a time-out, ideally at one of the deluxe sanitariums profiled a few pages in.
Right now—I think we can all agree—Americans are once again living in a nervous time. Pandemic. Wildfires. Indefinite homeschooling. Post-election political chaos. TikTok. Feelings of impending collapse have arguably never rested on firmer empirical ground. But today we no longer have recourse to the culturally sanctioned respite that the nervous breakdown once afforded. No longer can we take six weeks at the Hartford Retreat, one of the healing getaways described in Fortune— all long since closed or transmuted into psychiatric facilities that require a formal mental health diagnosis for admission. No restorative caesura is forthcoming for us. The nervous breakdown is gone.
For 80 years or so, proclaiming that you were having a nervous breakdown was a legitimized way of declaring a sort of temporary emotional bankruptcy in the face of modern life’s stresses. John D. Rocke feller Jr., Jane Addams, and Max Weber all had acknowledged “breakdowns,” and reemerged to do their best work. Provided you had the means—a rather big proviso— announcing a nervous breakdown 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. You weren’t crazy; the world was. As a 1947 headline in the New York Herald Tribune put it: “Modern World Viewed as Too Much for Man.”
The term nervous breakdown first appeared in a 1901 medical treatise for physicians. “It is a disease of the whole civilized world,” its author wrote. This disquisition built on the work of a Gilded Age doctor, George Miller Beard, who posited that we all had a set amount of nerve force, which could be depleted, like a battery, by the stress of modern life. Beard had argued that an epidemic of nervous disease had been unleashed by technology and the press, which accelerated everything. “The chief and primary cause of this … very rapid increase of nervousness is modern civilization,” he wrote in American Nervousness in 1881.
This idea of the nervous breakdown as a natural response to modern life gained currency through the go-go 1920s, and then achieved cultural ubiquity with the economic collapse of the 1930s. “Is a nervous breakdown a sign of weakness?” asked a 1934 book titled Nervous Breakdown.
Not at all. You have put up a good fight, but the odds were too heavy against you … Nature has warned you and given you respite. The breakdown is a definite indication that you are still functioning, and have within you the material for recovery.
Famous cases illustrated this. Rockefeller’s best- remembered achievements—the national parks, the art museums, Rockefeller Center— came after his breakdown in 1904, which sent him to the south of France for six months’ relief from strain. Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism while prostrated by an excess of the very work ethos he described. (He recovered and resumed teaching just in time to die of the 1918 pandemic flu.)
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