Does Burnout mean Mental Breakdown?

I used to judge those with a ‘mental breakdown’ as being weak, as someone very different from me. It took me almost a year to insert the label of burnout onto what happened to me. My health collapsed, I got chronic fatigue and I developed an autoimmune disease that I will have for life. I have been very irritated when people I interact with say that I’ve had a mental breakdown. I’m not a mental case. But perhaps this is the thinking that’s been holding me back.

I got quite stressed recently about a few things. I had a speech for a client recently, and a case of fraud with a telecoms provider that I’m still trying to resolve. I let myself get so stressed about these things, worrying about whether my speech will land well, be worthwhile for the audience and whether it was worth spending the time and energy on it.


I sold my book at a book fair last weekend and someone called me ‘the burnout lady.’ I’m not too thrilled about that label but that’s how my brand is evolving. I did feel compelled to call my book Avoiding Burnout. I’m not sure why, but I had to follow that instinct and I know that my next book has to be Healing Burnout. It’s not progressing very well, if you’re wondering.

The next book I write after Healing Burnout has to be about joy. I really want to show people that it’s possible to live a better life. But I have to get my act together first. I can’t spend weeks stressing about a speech that is just one part of my job. I can’t let myself get so stressed about normal events in life, that it affects my health. I need to find a way to do this work that I want to do, enjoy it and lead others towards joy at the same time.

I don’t want to be the burnout lady. I don’t want every speech to be about burnout. I know that my message is not as powerful unless I speak about how my life collapsed. In my speeches, I explain what happened to my health, and my life, as a result of becoming sick from stress. I know that many people don’t understand burnout and I must confess that before I got sick, neither did I.


Like many people, I thought it was a mental breakdown. I imagined a sufferer of burnout in a straight jacket or maybe sedated in an asylum. The option of being hospitalized was offered to me. My psychologist said that I could check into a hospital and the minimum stay would be three weeks. For the first three days, I would be sedated to the point where I wasn’t conscious and I wouldn’t be able to see my family. Just to let my brain calm down from the extreme stress I was under.

I didn’t choose that option. I chose to carry on with life, doing my best to make changes in my own way. I didn’t want to have a psychiatric stay on my record because people judge it and perhaps I wasn’t ready to accept what was happening. I probably prolonged my recovery by making that choice and I wonder if it was the right one. Because people judge anyway. They judge me for having burnout. I keep wanting to call it something else, like ‘stress-induced illness’ so that people can see beyond the mental illness into the real issue: a lifelong autoimmune disease and the chronic fatigue.

It has become my quest to share with people what can happen to our lives if we let it. I want to educate people that they can develop a lifelong chronic illness as a result of too much stress. I want to help people to avoid the suffering that came with my illness. The effect on my life from the chronic fatigue. The effect on my children, my husband and my relationships. The effect on our lifestyle and financial situation. I want to help the world know this. But I think some people can’t get past the mental illness component.

Or maybe it’s me that can’t get past it. Maybe I’m judging myself for letting this happen, for not managing my stress well and for not seeing it coming. Maybe I’m the one I need to convince that there’s more to burnout than the failure. It’s possible that there are people who suffered burnout without the lifelong illness. Perhaps there are people who took the hospital stay and that helped them enough.

Maybe it’s okay to talk about depression and to admit that my brain wasn’t functioning that well when I was diagnosed. I know that I was very irritable, especially with my family but also at work. I know that my decision-making was compromised by the level of stress I was under. I know that I wasn’t leading my business and staff well at that time.

Perhaps what is needed is for me to acknowledge that and to forgive myself for all of it. The depression, the irritability, the shouting at my children, and the bad choices at work. I’ve been working on self-love and it isn’t an easy thing to get right for me. But perhaps this is part of it and if I can embrace it all, maybe that will lead me to a path of peace.

I might be able to be a more-encompassing representative for people who want to talk about burnout and what it did to their lives. Perhaps if I stop judging myself for the mental aspects, I’ll be at ease in talking about this topic and being the burnout lady others want to engage with.

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I am a champion for living your passion. Writing is my passion, my destiny and my calling. I am a mother of two beautiful daughters and a wife and live in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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