The term nervous breakdown is not a medical one. It is used by the public to describe any illnesses or stressors that result in inability to function, suicidal tendencies, or a complete lack of touch with the world. To have a nervous breakdown means you can’t participate at all in your life, and a true nervous breakdown might be followed by an attempted suicide. The gravity of suffering a total mental letdown should not be underestimated, and most people who really are suffering from this require hospitalization in a mental facility, or at the very least, immediate assistance from a mental health professional.
In a common sense, nervous breakdown is often an exaggerative term. The sentence, “I nearly had a nervous breakdown when I got a C on my test,” stretches the truth. People may use the term to express that they got nervous, felt “stressed out,” or were experiencing a great deal of tension. Sometimes, people use the term "mental breakdown" or "mental break," to differentiate from the common speech form of nervous breakdown.
The word "nervous" in nervous breakdown implies anxiety or panic. While it is true that prolonged panic or numerous anxiety attacks can lead to a nervous breakdown, significant depression is also a common cause. There are other simple reasons why a person might have a nervous breakdown. People dealing with significant grief, losing a long held job, failing in school, going through divorce, caring for someone with a lengthy illness could suffer a nervous breakdown without adequate support. The strong emotions that can arise during any of these situations can cause emotional response that seems too much to bear.
Though the nervous breakdown is often described as sudden and acute, it usually is not. Stress builds and when people don’t get help in the early stages of stressful situations, their panic or depression may rise. The person who lost a job, for instance, may have undergone many months of rumored layoffs, or a sense that a job is tenuous. When the job is lost, stress may seem completely overwhelming.
Reluctance to get help from mental health professionals in the early stages of high stress situations can ultimately contribute to the final “nervous breakdown.” Conversely, people who are able to utilize talk therapy and possibly medication at the onset or near the beginning of a stressful situation may head off a nervous breakdown because they have a healthy support system in place. It helps when that support comes from someone outside the situation, like a therapist, because assistance from family and friends may not be enough.
Mental illness may trigger a nervous breakdown. Conditions associated with nervous breakdown include depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Again these conditions are normally present to some degree prior to a mental breakdown, and treatment for these conditions, especially through therapy and medication may help. It should be noted that the need for hospitalization or psychiatric intervention might not always be avoided in these conditions because not all treatments immediately work. A person may need several adjustments to medication prior to being fully helped, and some have strong drug resistance, where mediations simply don’t work.
In rare cases, a nervous breakdown may be a sudden event. A person with bipolar disorder who suddenly swings into a manic or depressive state might have a mental breakdown. Schizophrenia can also cause an acute mental breakdown that seems to appear without warning, especially at the onset of the illness.