Trauma is not typically something which people associate with wealth; frequently people assume that because people are wealthy that their lives are easy. However, modern research has shown that this is not in fact true, and that incidences of mental illness and addiction can be just as, or more so, prevalent in those who are wealthy than those who are not. In this article we are going to outline how this is so.
Trauma is usually associated with its most conspicuous and extreme forms, such as violence, physical and sexual abuse, witnessing death, and neglect. Whilst it is true that these are valid causes of trauma, from a therapeutic point of view, a wide range of things can place the brain under sufficient pressure to cause trauma.
Prolonged exposure to stress is traumatic. This can cause permanent alterations in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. This can increase levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol and noradrenaline1. It is estimated that 16% of people who experience stress go on to have lasting side effects from this; this is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This condition can result in many different mental and physical health conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and physical health problems2.
There are, of course, differing levels of wealth. One person’s life savings in the UK might make them comparatively wealthy in a less developed country, and someone considered wealthy in a developing country might seem poor in a developed one. This article will focus on those who have an income of at least triple that of the average for their country. It is pertinent that researchers have found that the wealthier a country is, the higher the rates of depression are3. One study found that wealthy youths in America suffered from higher incidences of depression than their less-wealthy peers, and also were more likely to use illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco4. One reason for this is that wealthier families were more likely to accepting of cannabis and alcohol. Despite this attitude, research has shown that using any form of drug as a teenager is a key predictor for later addiction5. Some researchers have also claimed that this teenage use of cannabis could a coping strategy for “maladjustment” in their teens6.
Wealthy children may encounter stress in the form of a high-pressure environment, coupled with extreme parental expectations. They are often told that they must excel in both academic and non-academic activities, which can be dejecting and traumatic if they do not match up to these often-unattainable standards7. Research has shown that children who describe themselves as “perfectionist” are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and substance use8.
It is very common for children and teenagers from wealthy families to be left alone for multiple hours per week; this can be due to the lifestyles of their parents, combined with the typically demanding hours which maintaining a high-earning career can entail. Whilst many parents assume that this will increase the “self-sufficiency” of their children9 this can leave children feeling emotionally neglected. This can be parents not taking part in sufficient amounts of “bonding” time with their children, and thus missing the chance to emotionally support their children. It has been shown that wealthy children are less likely to share mealtimes with their parents10.
Wealthy parents are also more likely to employ nannies or house-workers to take care of their children; this can result in feeling like the children have been literally abandoned. Wealthy children are also more likely to attend boarding school, which can further damage their bond with their parents. It has also been linked to mental health problems which occur later in life11.
Another reason that wealth can be traumatic centres in how the general public incorrectly perceive how easy their lives are12. It is much more likely that people are dismissive and unsympathetic to their problems. This can also be shown in how they are received by service providers, with one study finding that wealthy victims of domestic abuse had their problems minimised, with people assuming that leaving their partner would be simple due to their financial standing13. Researchers who studied people who grow up wealthy found that they had increased levels of narcissism and entitlement14, with both of these character traits being associated with an increased risk of drug addiction15.
The lifestyle which is a pre-requisite for many in achieving material wealth can also have negative effects on mental health. Examples of this are working long hours, which can be both emotionally and physically draining, and leave little time for interpersonal relationships16. The traits which facilitate these levels of success such as single-mindedness and opportunism can also damage these relationships17. The mindset of needing to acquire wealth can also be damaging; people are left feeling permanently dissatisfied as there is always more wealth to acquire18.
This article has outlined why wealth and its associated lifestyle does not mean that one is immune to trauma, even if it does mean that they are insulated from some of the traumatic factors which are associated with growing up in poverty. Trauma is subjective, which means that something which may not affect one person could have a hugely damaging impact on another. It is also true that wealth has its own unique traumas, which is why it is highly important that these should be treated by practitioners who truly understand them.
1 Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61.
2 Kolaitis, Gerasimos. “Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology vol. 8,sup4 1351198. 29 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1351198
3 Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. “Children Of The Affluent”. Current Directions In Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.
7 Luthar, Suniya S. “The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth.” Child development vol. 74,6 (2003): 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.
9 Hochschild AR. The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Metropolitan Books; 1997.
10 Luthar, Suniya S., and Shawn J. Latendresse. “Children Of The Affluent”. Current Directions In Psychological Science, vol 14, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49-53. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.
13 Weitzman S. Not to people like us: Hidden abuse in upscale marriages. New York: Basic Books; 2000.
14 Piff, Paul K.. “Wealth and the Inflated Self.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014): 34 – 43.
17 Warner, Silas L. “Psychoanalytic Understanding And Treatment Of The Very Rich”. Journal Of The American Academy Of Psychoanalysis, vol 19, no. 4, 1991, pp. 578-594. Guilford Publications, doi:10.1521/jaap.1.19126.96.36.1998.