It is easy to conflate material wealth with mental wellbeing.
There is a stereotype and stigma of being wealthy, that if you have wealth you should be happy and have nothing to worry about This myth is far from true.
There is a hidden cost of affluence that surfaces in mental health and addiction related issues. Although wealthy individuals enjoy many conveniences in life, people of extreme wealth are greatly impacted by alcohol and drug addiction, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. How can this be so?
Wealth and Addiction
A common belief is that drug addiction and alcoholism affect low-income individuals at higher rates than their higher income counterparts as they turn to alcohol and drugs as their primary means of coping with stressors of poverty. The reality is that drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental health challenges are not bound by socioeconomic status, but rather affect individuals regardless of how much or how little you have.
Preliminary studies suggest that wealthy individuals have experienced greater levels of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic despite massive increases in wealth among ultra-high-net-worth and high-net-worth individuals. Even before the pandemic, children of wealthy individuals experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse compared to national rates. There is indeed some truth behind the old adage that money can’t buy happiness; and while money may be able to buy some of the best mental health and addiction treatments in the world, it does not mitigate the fact that wealthy individuals suffer from such issues at alarming rates.
While extremely wealthy individuals may not be marginalized in the ways that are conventionally thought of when we typically discuss minority groups, they are indeed a minority group. These wealthy individuals are frequently demonized by society at large.
This demonization manifests itself in a huge empathy gap when it comes to having compassion for wealthy individuals. There is a lack of empathy for people of wealth because people believe that if they have money there is no need to feel bad for them. They shouldn’t have problems, or if they do, let them solve their own problems. This empathy gap is accentuated among children of affluence who are handed down large trust funds and assets, are successors of successful companies and spend money lavishly without doing any work. Despite these financial advantages, mental health and addiction related issues are problems that money cannot solve. In fact, money may make these problems more pervasive.
Wealthy Individuals Struggle with Mental Health and Addiction.
While some might think that wealth would serve to prevent substance abuse, it can actually serve to exacerbate it. Below are some key factors to consider:
Protection from natural consequences : Wealthy individuals are better protected from consequences that are often associated with substance abuse such as financial and legal issues or career problems. Individuals of affluence usually do not have to resort to illegal activity to fuel their addiction. When they do face legal consequences they can afford the best legal representation or leverage their connections in order to avoid significant punishment. In their workplace they hold positions of power, making it challenging for their subordinates and colleagues to intervene. In these ways individuals with wealth are insulated from the consequences of addiction that might otherwise force someone to recognize their problem and get help.
Less resilience : Wealthy individuals, especially those who were born into wealth and have experienced material comfort and convenience their entire lives, may not know what it is like to face extreme difficulties. As such, when they do go through a challenging time in their life they may not respond well, and subsequently turn to alcohol and drugs as their coping mechanism. This is especially true when it comes to challenges that money cannot easily solve such as anxiety, depression, stress, grief, or various traumas.
Feelings of separation : The greater level of wealth one has can create a greater degree of separation from society at large. This separation is driven by feelings of “otherness” and not belonging, as well as by lack of trust in others. Physical and emotional separation leads to isolation and feelings of loneliness, which are highly correlated with substance abuse.
Stress : Wealthy individuals often face extreme stress from their career and financial obligations. While many view wealthy individuals as the “leisure class,” wealthy individuals are also often categorized as “workaholics” and face immense pressure and stress to perform in their careers. Research has shown that CEO’s suffer from depression at double the rate of the general public. With the extraordinary amount of time and effort it takes to become wealthy, manage assets or manage a business, it can be difficult to make time for self-care, spend time with family and friends, or engage in other activities that can improve mental wellness. Subsequently, wealthy individuals may be left turning to drugs or alcohol to maintain energy and focus or to unwind and relax.
Excessive pressure to achieve : There can also be an immense pressure to achieve. This is especially true of individuals with generational wealth, who have parents or grandparents from whom their wealth was inherited. Such individuals may feel that they will never be able to achieve up to the standards of their family legacy, or feel that they are a disappointment. Children may feel that they have to excel academically, recreationally, and financially. These pressures can lead individuals to turn to alcohol and drugs to cope.
Physical and emotional isolation from parents : Children of wealthy individuals may have parents that are constantly working, traveling, and attending business or social events. Children of wealth may be raised just as much by their nanny as they are by their own parents, if not more. This physical and emotional isolation and separation from parents can lead to feelings of sadness, loneliness, and abandonment which are highly correlated with mental health and substance use.
Failing to Acknowledge Addiction
Denial is a common characteristic of individuals with a substance addiction regardless of socioeconomic status. However, individuals with extreme wealth may be faced with additional reinforcements that cause them to fall deeper into denial than might otherwise be the case. For example, it is easy for high-net-worth individuals to tell themselves, “I’m not like other addicts.” They don’t fit the stereotype of what it means to be an addict or alcoholic. They may be “high functioning” because they are able to continue to show up for work, and even excel in their career.
Obstacles to Addiction Treatment
In addition to factors that contribute to mental health and addiction related issues, wealthy individuals also face many obstacles to addiction treatment, despite having the resources to buy the best help in the world. Below are some key fears to consider:
Fear of trust : Prominent and wealthy individuals may have a history of keeping secrets and not trusting others. We already live in a world which instills in us the importance of keeping secrets within a family and not trusting individuals outside of the family, and this is something commonly seen across people of different backgrounds. These notions are often heightened and exacerbated among affluent families. Wealthy individuals often struggle to build healthy stable relationships that are built on things like trust, respect and love. They may lack trust of outsiders and be suspicious of people’s motives. It can sometimes be challenging to build a healthy therapeutic relationship with individuals who have these types of beliefs instilled in them. This is important because studies reflect that the rapport between client and therapist is one of the most important criteria that will determine a successful outcome in therapy, and if a client is not trusting of their therapist it diminishes the efficacy of treatment, for obvious reasons. They may also have a false preconceived notion that nobody will understand them and that there is no help available for them.
Fear of being “found out” : When it comes to privacy, wealthy individuals are concerned of being exposed. In other words, they are afraid it will become known that they have a mental health or addiction related issue, that they were unable or too “weak willed” to get well on their own, and that their problem was so unmanageable that they had to receive help from a psychotherapist or other mental health or addiction specialist. Even if they are not a public figure, they may be afraid of friends or colleagues finding out about their problem. If they are an executive level individual in their company or have a prominent career, they may have fears of tarnishing their reputation and being forced out of their job.
Fear of stigma : People of wealth associate themselves with power, willpower, confidence, and strength. The stigmatic nature of addiction strips them of this, at least psychologically. Addicted individuals are perceived as being “weak willed.” As such, wealthy individuals who need help for their addiction may question their own identity and be resistant to receiving treatment.
Fear of perception : Wealthy individuals often carry great shame about their mental health or addiction related issues. While it is true that shame transcends individuals across various cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, wealthy individuals hold onto a specific set of shameful notions. It often sounds something like, “I have all this success and all this wealth, I have no reason to feel depressed, no reason to be addicted to alcohol.” They may also feel they disgraced their family legacy. This type of self-talk often serves to compound and heighten their sense of shame, because they think they shouldn’t have these problems with all the success they have and all of the money they have, none of which is solving their problems.
Fear of not being understood : Wealthy individuals may have a belief that their therapist or other addiction treatment provider will not understand them. That with all of their money, power and resources their therapist will not be able to empathize with them. These thoughts and feelings stem from the empathy gap and lack of compassion that society has for people of extreme wealth.