First Light Healthcare


With Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist Mee Hee Douglas


What is a mental breakdown?

Basically a mental breakdown is when a person becomes unable to cope with everyday life.

Is a mental breakdown the same as a nervous breakdown?

Yes. They are two names for the same condition.

What are the symptoms of a mental/nervous breakdown?

A person suffering a mental or nervous breakdown will not be able to function in everyday life. They will have trouble doing even seemingly simple things such as getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, going to work etc.

Are the symptoms the same for everyone?

Yes, generally speaking they are. There will be variations obviously, but the inability to cope with everyday life will be the underlying symptom or behaviour in everyone.

Does a mental/nervous breakdown happen slowly or quickly?

It generally happens slowly, over a period of time, however it’s important to remember that sometimes people may not even notice it happening. So to the person suffering, it may feel like a sudden snap but it usually has been happening over time.
There is always a pattern to such things. A person will have always coped in a certain way, but when a breakdown is occurring, they cannot cope as they have done in the past.

Will I know if I am having a mental/nervous breakdown?

Yes. You might not know what it’s called, but you will definitely be able to start reading the signs… again, the signs will be that you find it increasing difficult to cope. This may come out in either an overreaction or an underreaction – in both cases it is the extremity of the reaction that is the sign. So a person who is suffering a breakdown may face a seemingly small challenge and completely overreact, or alternatively, they may face a huge life challenge and show no reaction at all. Both of these are indicative of the inability to cope in their normal way.

Does a mental/nervous breakdown cause physical damage?

Not in and of itself, but I do think that, like any stress, across time an untreated breakdown that goes on and on is at some point going to have a physical impact.

What causes a mental/nervous breakdown?

Well, many things can cause a breakdown, and it will vary from person to person, but it is always linked to a person’s emotional development. If we do not have increasing ability to manage our emotional lives and be able to think through the reality of our circumstances, we are going to stumble when something comes along that challenges us.
A breakdown is generally born of two things: (a) an extreme circumstance together with (b) the disappearance of the thing that holds you up.
A good example would be Anne Frank, who coped with the extreme circumstance of the holocaust seemingly quite well, but when her sister died – thus taking away the thing that had held her up – she could no longer cope.
In the same way, a child may go through primary school beautifully, then suddenly they hit high school and they can’t go on – they refuse to go to school, their grades decline as does their behaviour. Incredibly distressing for parents and children. What is happening is a combination of an extreme circumstance – starting a new school with lots of older and bigger kids, new routines etc – and the disappearance of the things they relied upon to make them feel safe and contained – trusted teachers, friends, and familiar environments.

So children can have a mental/nervous breakdown?

Yes, they absolutely can and do.

How do you treat a mental/nervous breakdown?

If we understand what it is, then the treatment is largely to try and build up again the person’s ability to cope, build a new thing that will help hold them up.
Help that person to see hope in life again.
When you have a breakdown, it is an incapacity to take in life, so treatment has to help build that ability back up again.
Therapy sessions are not only a place where emotions and responses can be explored and developed, but they are also a place that can hold a person emotionally while they build up these capacities again. A place they can trust and rely upon. In between sessions, their capacity to cope may wane, but it is built back up again in therapy until the person feels they can again copy with life.

What should I do if I think I am having a mental/nervous breakdown?

The answer is very simple. Seek help. If you feel like you or your loved one is in a crisis situation, you should seek immediate emergency help by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, calling 000, or going to your nearest Emergency Department.
If that matter is not an immediate emergency, you should see your GP and get the process moving to start receiving help.


By Cape Byron Medical Centre