The Nervous Breakdown – Miltown and Mad Men
When I was a child back in the Dark Ages of the 60’s I remember hearing the term, Nervous Breakdown, when listening intently under the table to the to the adult conversation going on at the surface by a group of neighborhood ladies in hushed tones. Reminded many times that “children are seen but not heard, “I knew that the group above would not even be aware of my presence and I might be privy to some really juicy gossip. The conversation involved a neighbor lady who had a good husband, so it wasn’t a beating-spousal abuse that put her over the edge, which sometimes happened in these immigrant communities often enough, but something else which the group didn’t quite understand. But she was married with several young children and a working husband who as often away. She also drove a car which was unusual in those days.
After that when I saw this lady, she looked, acted and talked normally and I wondered what the mysterious “nervous breakdown” had done to her in contrast to another old neighbor woman who often ran through the small settlement alley screaming and crying. I often heard adult women saying that they were going to “have a nervous breakdown” and I waited and watched to see what would materialize. Later I realized that it was just a term for “stressed-out.” The term is not often heard today but the symptoms associated with are still with us.
According to Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D. a Mayo Clinic psychiatric, nervous breakdown isn’t a medical term but was “sometimes used to describe a stressful situation in which someone becomes temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It’s commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming.” Anxiety, panic, depression, disassociation (detachment) may all be the result.
The psychiatric community has various names for this condition today and maybe the closest would be “Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety” or “Depressed Mood Adjustment Disorder,” conditions defined as acute reactions to an external source of stress, which could include bereavement, or relationship issues. But it shows some commonalities with PTSD, post- traumatic stress disorder, which soldiers can develop as a result of combat. When the source of the stress is removed, the condition abates but the memories may not.
The standard offering of psychiatric treatments in those days varied from hydrotherapy, electric shock treatments, insulin treatment to lobotomy, until the 50’s when drugs came on the scene. Milltown, meprobamate, was the best-selling minor tranquilizer prescribed in the 50’s and 60’s for anxiety which became a controlled substance and considered unproven. Which gave way to valium, “ Mother’s Little Helper, “ a benzodiazepine which was prescribed “liberally” by GP’ (general practitioners) in the ’60’s and ’70’s, was the bestselling drug in the Western World from 1960-1981. (1)
If you are a fan of the TV series, Mad Men you may have heard reference to the ladies chatter, “Do you want a Miltown? The children of Miltown Moms , born roughly in the period from 1976- 2000 would have given birth themselves by now, or be in their teenage year. But what, if anything, did those benzo’s do to the brains of the daughters of those Mad Men gals and more importantly, to the daughter’s offspring or the son’s? Mother’s Little Helper wasn’t so benign. We do know that after the introduction of valium, the number of people in mental health facilities skyrocketed. (1)
(1) Robert Whitaker. Mad in America. 2010. Basic Books. p 126