A blog by Araminta Jonsson

During an interview with a recently retired mental health nurse who had worked with adults within crisis services, I was intrigued to learn that her two most recent experiences of patients committing suicide, shared many similarities. They were both female, retired, married for more than 30 years to their respective spouses, and of above average socioeconomic status (SES). They both resided in affluent, rural areas and had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Both women successfully completed suicide by means of hanging. These examples give credence to the theory that wealth can negatively impact on mental health.

Research has suggested that there may be a correlation between the links with wealth and unhappiness. It also suggests that this demographic struggles with high levels of stress and a shortfall of pleasure and accomplishment[1]. High achieving, affluent individuals are often under pressure to work extreme hours and jeopardise quality of life, in order to maintain a high standard of living. In 1999, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published the article in the American Psychologist, If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?, where he suggested that when one has extreme wealth, ‘most of one’s psychic energy becomes invested in material goals, it is typical for sensitivity to other rewards to atrophy. Friendships, art, literature, natural beauty, religion and philosophy become less and less interesting.[2]’

Further research by Kasser & Ryan (1993)[3] and (1996)[4], Ryan et al (1999)[5] and Sheldon and Kasser (1995)[6] revealed poorer levels of well-being and mental health within the group of participants who overvalued extrinsic rewards such as wealth and fame and over intrinsic rewards such as community service, interpersonal relatedness and personal growth.

In addition, researchers have also analysed the potential links that wealth and social class may have on narcissistic characteristics. In a paper by Paul K Piff entitled, Wealth and the Inflated Self: Class, Entitlement, and Narcissism, he hypothesises that, although ‘research documents increasing narcissism in society,[7]’ that this increase is most pronounced among wealthy and upper class individuals. Exploring 5 different studies to prove his hypothesis, Piff was able to conclude that, indeed, ‘higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.[8]’

H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY, also analysed this specific demographic of individuals with extreme wealth and from high social classes, in a journal article in The Review of Religious Research. His article revealed that those with ‘yuppie values’, who preferred to climb the career ladder, gain financial and social prestige as opposed to forming close bonds gained through friendships and marriage, claimed to being fairly, or very, unhappy, twice as often as others did[9].

In modern day society an unnerving and destructive phenomenon is emerging amongst the affluent. A percentage of those with high SES are driven to earn obscene amounts of money in order to increase their wealth and social status, and to continue to be consumers of the luxury goods that are constantly produced and advertised relentlessly. As British economic growth has steadily increased, so too have reported levels of anxiety and depression. In 2004, a report by the Nuffield Foundation stated that rises in mental health problems seem to be associated with improvements in economic conditions.[10]

In a paper discussing depression across cultures, Ronald Kessler discussed The WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Survey Initiative, which demonstrated that, ‘on average, the estimated lifetime prevalence [of depression] in the WMH surveys was higher in high income (14.6%) than low-middle income (11.1%) countries.[11]’

It is also worth noting that children of wealthy parents often pay the price for their predetermined SES as their mental health and psychological well-being is put at risk. Wealthy parents regularly bombard their children with extra-curricular activities and schedules, private tutoring, sports coaching, therapy appointments and pressure to achieve high grades to secure a place at a prestigious university or college. Hence, these children are living an over-pressured lifestyle and become vulnerable to stress, exhaustion and sleep deprivation as they are excessively busy. They may lose the ability to problem solve and adapt and can become less resilient if overprotected. In an essay written for the New York Times in 1999, Susan Gilbert commented that, ‘faced with unrelenting pressures to excel (to be average is tantamount to having failed), many children develop stress-related symptoms such as insomnia, stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, and depression.[12]’ Whilst in 1985 writing about children of the rich, Frank Pittman MD, states ‘growing up rich is not an unmixed blessing. Great wealth has undoubted benefits, but it is not good for children. It distorts their functional relationship with the world, it belittles their own accomplishments, and it grotesquely amplifies their sense of what is good enough.[13]’ According to psychologist Arnold Washton at Compass Health Group, children born into wealthy families are less likely to be able to combat stressful situations in later life, as they have been shielded from many of life’s difficulties throughout their childhood and adolescence, thus becoming less resilient and more prone to depression[14].

Research has also explored the theory that environmental factors can greatly contribute to poor mental health amongst the wealthy. For example; large homes in affluent suburbs are most likely set apart with long spanning front lawns and gated driveways thus contributing to a sense of isolation[15]. According to Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls, it is unlikely that neighbours in these areas will opportunistically meet as they go about their day to day business, and even less likely that their children will play outside in the community[16]. These wealthy neighbourhoods may well be amongst the most vulnerable to low levels of community unity.

Many of the potential risks attached to wealth and status have been highlighted within this article. In the pursuit of goals such as the highest standard of university education followed by a high flying career, the possible costs to mental health and well-being to an individual, should not be overlooked.