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by Ralph Swindle, Jr., Ph.D., Kenneth Heller, Ph.D.,
Bernice Pescosolido, Ph.D., and Saeko Kikuzawa, Ph.D.

The percentage of Americans who report ever feeling like they were about to have a "nervous breakdown" has increased in the last 40 years. The two Americans View Their Mental Health Surveys were administered in 1957 to 2,460 adults and to 2,264 adults in 1976. In 1996, the General Social Survey was administered to 1,444 adults. The surveys were designed to measure the past and current profile of the public's view of their own mental health. All the participants were asked whether they ever felt they were having a nervous breakdown, and if so, how they responded to this feeling.

According to lead author Ralph Swindle, Jr., Ph.D., who analyzed the survey results, American's perceptions of their mental health status have changed over the past four decades. In 1957, 19 percent of the participants reported ever feeling they were going to have a nervous breakdown; in 1976, 21 percent of the participants reported an impending nervous breakdown; and in 1996, 26 percent of the participants reported feeling like they were having a nervous breakdown.

The major changes over the forty-year period in people's responses to the feelings of having a nervous breakdown include: an increased use of informal supports (friends and family), a decline in seeking physician's assistance (44% in 1957 to 18% in 1996) and an increase in seeking out non-medical mental health professionals, like psychologists, social workers and counselors (0.6% in 1957 to 18% in 1996).

Peoples' reasons in 1957 for feeling like they are having a nervous breakdown were most likely to be attributed to health problems, said the authors. But in 1996, the most frequented cited events related to impending nervous breakdowns were divorce, marital strains and separation and troubles with members of the opposite sex.

Americans appear to be more willing to admit to having feelings of an impending nervous breakdown and about the reasons for it than they were 40 years ago, and non-medical mental health specialists are increasingly seen as appropriate resources for these problems, said Dr. Swindle.

"We didn't find that demographics played much of a role in more Americans feeling a breakdown in their mental health," said the authors. "It could be either a change in the prevalence of psychological problems or a lessening of the stigma associated with admitting that one is going to have a nervous breakdown or both."

To protect people from declining mental health, mental health policies should be aimed at prevention and focus on building coping skills, fostering stress resilience and strengthening ties with family and friends.

Article: "Responses to Nervous Breakdowns in America Over a 40 Year Period: Mental Health Policy Implications," Ralph Swindle, Jr., Ph.D., Kenneth Heller, Ph.D., Bernice Pescosolido, Ph.D., and Saeko Kikuzawa, Ph.D., Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Indiana University, Bloomington and Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, American Psychologist, Vol. 55, No. 7.


Ralph Swindle, Jr., Ph.D., can be reached by telephone at (317) 433-5865


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