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What is a Mental Breakdown & When to Seek Help

Person with mask in therapy session

"If you're feeling helpless, like what you do doesn't matter, or you're losing pleasure in things that normally fulfilled you, you may be headed for a mental breakdown," says Kevin Curtis, Crisis Services Director at University of Utah Health Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI).

Mental Breakdown Meaning

Describing mental breakdown symptoms is very personal, says Curtis. "People have their own indications of a mental break or emotional breakdown; it's the point at which we feel we can no longer handle things. If we were cars, a mental breakdown is a total tire blowout that has us on the side of the road."

According to Curtis, signs of a nervous breakdown are the same as signs of a mental breakdown, though potentially involving more anxiety. "Whether your breakdown is, 'I'm so depressed that I don't want to do anything' or if your nervous breakdown symptoms are anxiety-based, with panic attacks limiting your ability to do anything, it's functionally the same."

"Sometimes having a definition that's not appropriately broad becomes a barrier to us getting the help we need or doing something about it, because we tell ourselves our problems aren't that bad," says Curtis. "In fact, we train our staff around the idea that you don't define crisis for the patient - the patient defines crisis for themselves."

If you're experiencing an immediate mental health crisis, you can turn to a hospital, like HMHI, for dedicated round the clock care to get you back on your feet.

Maintenance = Best Mental Help

"In the mental health world, we're trying to create more of an awareness within the community, that care isn't focused on the breakdown. It's focused around avoiding the breakdown," notes Curtis. "If we expected our cars would just run forever and ever, without maintenance, and never have any problems, how many times would we find ourselves broken down? Yet, we're so disconnected from the routine needs of our own emotional well-being."

The best way to avoid a breakdown is maintenance. "We all need that, but there's something about mental health, whether it's anxiety, depression, or something else, that we somehow think it's not worth getting help for, or it's not bad enough to need help until it's totally debilitating and we're completely nonfunctional," says Curtis.

Curtis details that maintenance includes balance. "You've got your social life; work life; home and family responsibilities. Each of these unique domains could start to show signs of stress. So, look at them and ask yourself, am I feeling emotionally overwhelmed? Am I starting to think, 'How long can I keep doing this?' Then know that's when it's time to get support."

What's Good for Mental Health?

Exercising for mental health is something Curtis subscribes to, noting it's a way to value ourselves. "I benefit from daily exercise to manage my own depression and anxiety, and maybe exercise isn't what works for everyone, but when we are purposeful about how we care for our body and what we put into our body, we're also caring for our minds and our emotions."

For more options, you can do an online search of the terms 'mental health help near me', 'helplines for depression'; 'mental health helpline'; or 'therapist hotlines'. You can also visit U of U Health's Community Crisis Intervention & Support Services page for more details.