Saturday, October 23, 2010

Population on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

During the 1950s, “nervous breakdown” was the overall rubric under which a variety of behaviors and conditions were catalouged. High powered advertising executives of the kind portrayed in the popular television series Mad Men had breakdowns due to the stress of their jobs, and were sent away to sanitariums like the famed Austen Riggs in Stockbridge (if they could afford it). In those days, the tranquillizer of choice was Miltown, which then gave rise to Librium and Valium. The protagonist of A Stop at Willoughby, the famed Twilight Zone episode about a harried ad executive who slips into an escape hatch from the prison of his high-pressure existence, is the prototypical nervous breakdown sufferer, but his psychic break transports him into a fantasy of a euphoric, carefree world which turns out to be death. You don’t hear about nervous breakdowns much anymore. Today, the diagnosis that is increasingly being provided for a variety of behaviors is bipolar disorder. What are we to make of this? Were those suffering from bipolar disorder merely ignored, in the same way that the learning disorders ADD and dyslexia were long overlooked or misunderstood, or were those afflicted with nervous breakdowns really suffering from bipolar disorder? Sometimes the changes in labels are the result of the DSM IV, which lists and categorizes conditions, and which recently broadened the category for autism to such an extent that Asberger’s no longer stands alone as a diagnostic category. And then there are the ailments that seem to come and go, like the women who talk of Michelangelo in “Prufrock.” One of these is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a malady that appeared to be more ubiquitous in the ‘90s than it is today, despite the fact that no vaccine was ever developed to prevent it from striking. 

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