Anxiety and wealth: 'The fact that they’re anxious means that their lives aren’t perfect'

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Think money can buy you comfort and happiness? Think again.

Affluent individuals, including children and teenagers in high-income families, suffer severe anxiety. Some researchers have even argued that these affluent individuals are particularly susceptible to the condition.

Many people will wonder why we should pay attention to people with financial security and who seemingly “have it all.” Although challenges to those in poverty are enormous, there is danger in assuming difficulties are not present on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Dr. Felicity Sapp, a Registered Clinical Psychologist in Calgary, Alta., emphasizes that anxiety disorders can be “debilitating” and “scary,” often occurring when people feel like they don’t have control over their lives.

“If we look at the impact that stress has on anxiety disorders we’re going to see that when people are in undo stress, financial concerns, multiple moves, neighborhood violence…and that parents may not be as involved or there may be depression in parents,” Sapp said. “When there’s higher stress, we’re going to see that’s going to increase anxiety, which is then going to make anxiety disorders more prevalent.”

In 2017, Rachel Sherman, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School published the book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence. Sherman interviewed 50 of the wealthiest New Yorkers, including hedge fund financiers and corporate lawyers, professors and artists, and stay-at-home mothers, as a way to truly understand their lifestyle and how they handle their social advantage in an unequal society.

ALSO SEE: Nearly half of Canadians suffer from anxiety — and many believe there’s no cure

“I think that sometimes we imagine that wealthy people are happier and while I think that they are happier than people who are genuinely concerned about where their next meal is coming from, they certainly do worry a lot,” Sherman said.

From these interviews, there are particular patterns of anxieties that Sherman was able to glean along the way. One of these causes of anxiety is economic insecurity. Sherman identifies that although this may sound “completely ridiculous” for individuals who are earners in the top one, two per cent, the perceived possibility of losing their job or losing their income is very real.

The control over money, particularly in a household with a sole-earner, was found to be a cause of anxiety for women who don’t have their own income in particular. These women often feel stressed about hiding their spending from their husband.

“In my sample, they’re mostly women who actually had been working in finance or corporate law who had earned a significant salary themselves in the past,” Sherman said. “Anxieties about where the money comes from and who gets to decide how to spend, I think are pretty significant.”

Sherman also identifies that for the individuals she spoke to, there is insecurity and anxiousness around their children, some concerns being quite specific to particularly affluent parents.

“One of the wealthiest people who has access to upwards of $50 million was concerned about their children potentially being kidnapped,” Sherman said. “So I think that when you get to a certain level, you get into anxiety about that kind of thing happening to kids.”

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Anxiety for affluent children and teenagers

Suniya Luthar, PhD, Foundation Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University and Professor Emerita, Columbia University’s Teachers College published, her first paper connecting affluent children and teenagers to depression, anxiety and substance abuse in the mid-1990s, and has continued to study the topic ever since. Luthar has found that children of white collar professionals in high-achieving schools have rates of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and problems of substance use one and a half to two and a half times times as high as American national normative samples.

ALSO SEE: Are millennials really the anxiety generation?

Luthar has found that the behaviour of parents becomes the standard that children need to measure up to, often becoming a huge source of stress. These behaviours include both physical absence and emotional preoccupation, particularly a constant worry about maintaining a certain standard of living.

“These kids are truly an at-risk population. We cannot afford to look the other way anymore,” Luthar said. “There are too many suicides, there’s too much self harm, there are too many eating disorders, there’s too much drug and alcohol abuse.”

When it comes to medical treatment, various options are certainly available for affluent families but Luthar found that parents and teachers usually do not refer kids and teens for professional help unless it causes them “a great deal of inconvenience.” This includes failing grades, asthma and oppositional behaviors.

“Unfortunately, there are too many parents who worry about, ‘Is this going to sully my child’s record, is it going to look bad?’” Luthar said.

According to Luthar, parents need to evaluate to what degree they, as individuals, see their self-worth dependent on their accomplishments and successes. Through her work with Authentic Connections Group, Luther has found that the well being of a primary caregiver can significantly impact a child’s relationship with anxiety.

“Just like our children need that unconditional love to function well…so do we,” Luthar said.

ALSO SEE: What is the ‘most severe’ mental illness? 52 per cent of Canadians feel like they don’t know enough to say

Dr. Sapp believes the feeling of “high expectations” could be significant cause of anxiety for affluent individuals, regardless of age.

“That need to want to succeed can also cause people to get quite anxious too because they’re going to be having high expectations on themselves and if they don’t meet those expectations, anxiety is going to revolve,” Sapp said.

Abacus Data survey results for Yahoo Canada
Abacus Data survey results for Yahoo Canada

Is anxiety a disorder for the wealthy?

Despite the warnings of anxiety risks for wealthy individuals, researchers and experts make a point to not overstate the connection between anxiety and affluent individuals.

According to Luthar, there is a U-shaped curve between a families’ socio-economic status and depression, anxiety and substance abuse in kids and teens. The children with the lowest socio-economic status and and those who are “relatively well-off” are the ones who are most in trouble.

In a study of 1,500 Canadian residents aged 18 and over, conducted by Abacus Data for Yahoo Canada, 46 per cent of respondents with an annual household income of $50,000 or less say they struggle with anxiety. Comparatively, 35 per cent of individuals with an annual household income over $100,000 self-identify as suffering from anxiety.

ALSO SEE: How does religion impact anxiety?

In terms of a formal diagnosis, the highest percentage of survey respondents who have been diagnosed with anxiety by a medical professional have an annual household income below $50,000, totaling 35 per cent.

Dr. Sapp points out that there are a number of factors that can lead to connections between anxiety disorders and a particular socio-economic group.

“We have people’s temperaments, their genetics, the environment and they all interact to determine whether an anxiety disorder or OCD is going to develop,” she said.

For the wealthy New Yorkers Sherman spoke to, she says the anxieties of these individuals, in part, plays to their desire to push through the stereotype of being particularly entitled, snobby and living a seemingly perfect life.

“I think that sometimes feeling anxious has a kind of a silver lining for them of making them not feel bad about being wealthy because they are still anxious,” Sherman said. “Of course they don’t like being anxious but the fact that they’re anxious mean that their lives aren’t perfect and they don’t have to feel guilty about that.

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

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Abacus Data, a market research firm based in Ottawa, conducted a survey for Yahoo Canada to test public attitudes towards anxiety as a medical condition, including social stigmas and cultural impacts. The study was an online survey of 1,500 Canadians residents, age 18 and over, who responded between Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.53%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region.