A wealth of problems:
New millionaires are a boon for creative psychologists

August 28, 2000


Rarely does a week go by that I don’t hear of an epidemic of some new psychological disorder.

When “road rage” first appeared, I laughed, foolishly thinking that no-one would take it seriously. Then police began laying charges and judges prescribed treatment. Quickly the rage malady spread to include airplane passengers, skiers, golfers and even gardeners.

I had a similar reaction to the notion of sex addicts. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton was diagnosed and this psychological disorder became a plague, as hoards of “experts” surfaced offering proven treatments.Gates-Wealth.jpg (13569 bytes)

Recently, I added up the number of people said to be suffering from just 20 of these modern-day afflictions and found the total was more than 900 million—three times the population of the U.S. Such numbers have a numbing effect on my sensibilities, encouraging me to skip over the new disorders as I do television commercials.

Last February, when “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” first appeared, I paused, thinking that surely, at last, this was an idea sufficiently nutty to be dismissed. How could anyone take seriously what California psychologist, Stephen Goldbart, was saying about the serious psychological problems caused by becoming rich? This time, surely people would clue in to the obvious - that these specialists are targeting clients whose primary characteristic is that they’d have no problem paying their bills. When NBC treated the topic with sarcasm, making fun of this “latest menace in the land,” I thought that it was okay to laugh.

Then, in April, Sudden Wealth Syndrome popped up in U.S Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s remarks to Congress. The booming U.S. economy, having already created nine million millionaires, may be putting its citizens at risk, he suggested.

When, two weeks ago, a front-page article in the National Post made Sudden Wealth Syndrome sound credible, I conceded that I must deal with the reality of yet another absurd disorder being taken seriously. While most of us would covet this affliction, psychologists who specialize in treating it say that those who hit it lucky in business, win the lottery or inherit millions may experience deep psychological symptoms including insomnia, anxiety, depression, denial and guilt; all, of course, requiring therapy. Joan DiFuria, Goldbart’s business partner, uses terms such as “an early identity crisis” in defining the problem.

To assist the woefully wealthy, this psychological duo have opened the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in psychology-prone California, and have created their own three-stage treatment plan.

The first step is coming to terms with the surprise, excitement and confusion of sudden riches. The next is to work on regaining a sense of control and comfort, and the final stage, they say, is to set personal priorities and goals for a life of wealth.

Another self-proclaimed savior of the rich is Jessie O’Neill. She uses the term “affluenza,” to describe the perceived malady and has, as part of her own healing process (she’s the child of wealthy parents), founded a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the dangers inherent in affluence. In media interviews, university lectures and TV shows, she speaks of “money wounds” and warns of the “havoc that affluenza wreaks.”

Financial consultants have known for years that there is money to be made from those with money and now it would seem that psychologists have clued in.

So, with this new and imaginative syndrome, there is a quickly growing industry of wealth specialists. While one might assume the market for their services is small, estimates are that Silicon Valley alone produces 64 new millionaires every day. Once the thousands of Microsoft millionaires in the Pacific northwest and others in the high-tech areas of the southeast and elsewhere are added together, the number is significant.

At least it is significant to aspiring wealth therapists, some offering psychological counseling, others helping their clients to deal with the excess money through advice on philanthropy.

In this new field, philanthropy is considered to be a key to peace of mind. However, Claude Rosenberg, the founder of Newtithing Group, a San Francisco based service that promotes philanthropic activities, reports that the nouveau riche have “a wariness about giving away a lot of money. You can never really overcome that wariness.”

Wariness would certainly seem appropriate when it comes to trusting the expanding army of wealth experts. The newly rich might need to be reminded of billionaire John Paul Getty’s comment that while “money may not make you happy, it sure helps in keeping the children close.”Naturally, in this psychologized era, it will also make some psychotherapists want to be close too. Freud, the reputed father of psychotherapy, recognized this attraction. Referring to rich patients as “goldfish,” he wrote to a friend: “A patient with whom I have been negotiating, a ‘goldfish,’ has just (agreed to treatment). My mood depends very strongly on my earnings. Money is laughing gas for me.” Obviously, Freud would have delighted in treating those suffering from Sudden Wealth Syndrome.

As this new breed of therapists circle their prey, I am left wondering who will be providing the services for the masses still suffering from “Prolonged Poverty Syndrome.” Now there’s a catchy new diagnosis! But I’m willing to bet this one won’t stick. Who wants clients who can’t pay? Even Freud was fishing for goldfish.



@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,