About a third of Americans say they once felt
on the verge of a nervous breakdown or had a mental health problem,
according to a study released today that examines perceptions of
psychological health in the United States over four decades.
“There’s been a real change in both Americans’ attitudes toward acknowledging mental health problems and in their willingness to talk to people about it,” said Ralph Swindle Jr., lead author of the study, which appears in the July issue of American Psychologist.
In 1996, more than 26 percent of adults surveyed said they had felt an impending nervous breakdown, up from 19 percent in 1957, he said.
In addition, another 7 percent said they had experienced a mental health problem, a question not asked in the earlier survey. Most of those questioned related mental illness to more serious psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
The increase between the surveys could be caused by a combination of more people experiencing psychological problems and a lessening of the stigma associated with admitting to a nervous breakdown, said Swindle of Indiana University.
Participants in the 1996 study saw a nervous breakdown as related to stress, depression and anxiety.
“The way the general population uses the term ‘nervous breakdown’ is a mental collapse,” said co-author Bernice Pescosolido, also at Indiana University. “They were talking about getting to a point in their lives where they couldn’t carry on.”
Those most likely to say they had anticipated a nervous breakdown were young, white single mothers with low incomes and no involvement with organized religion, the researchers said.
As the percentage of Americans reporting a feeling of impending breakdown has increased over the last four decades, the cause of those feelings and the way they’re dealt with has also changed.
In the 1957 survey, most people said health problems had caused them to feel close to a breakdown. But in 1996, the most frequently cited causes were relationship problems, including divorce, separation and other marital strains.
While 44 percent of people experiencing these feelings in 1957 sought medical help, only 18 percent did so in 1996. People instead turned to non-medical health professionals like psychologists, social workers and counselors—about 18 percent saw them in 1996 compared to less than 1 percent in 1957.
The proportion of people seeking help from friends and family has also increased, quadrupling to 28 percent in 1996.
Mental health issues have received more attention in the last year because of Tipper Gore, who has spoken openly about her bout with depression. Mrs. Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, has said she was treated for clinical depression after a 1989 car accident nearly killed their son Albert, then 6. She also said the family sought counseling after the accident.
Recent studies have found an estimated 50 million Americans suffer some form of mental illness during their lives.
The nervous breakdown survey questioned 1,444 American adults from March to May 1996 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.