Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
When we think of Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals (UHNWIs), the image we most commonly conjure is of a smartly dressed man on his superyacht with a glass of whisky in his hand. It is cliched but dangerously close to the truth.
Research shows that the more successful you are, the more you drink, and that men drink almost twice as much as women. A Norwegian study covering 30 European countries confirmed that out of all socioeconomic groups, rich people drink the most.1
To mark International Men’s Health Week, this blog explores the relationship many wealthy and successful men have with alcohol, and the devastating impact it can have on health.
The reality of alcoholism and wealth
Celebrity males who have struggled with alcoholism are numerous. Elton John, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Daniel Ratcliffe, and Ewan McGregor are just a few high-profile people who have battled with addiction, often in the public domain.
More recently, the defamation case by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard laid bare Depp’s drug and alcohol abuse. Amber Heard too, we learned, has a history of anxiety and addiction.
While the focus of this blog is on men’s health, it should also be acknowledged that women in the UHNWI world are also susceptible to alcohol problems.
Amongst the wealthy, it’s not just those in the limelight who fall foul to excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption. In the private world of the world’s richest and most highly successful people, wealth makes addictions easier to proliferate, due to accessibility.
Alcohol is omnipresent in the provocative Netflix series, Succession, which dramatizes the relationships of a highly dysfunctional super-rich family. Of course, the show is fictional, but the complex relationships UHNWIs have with drugs and alcohol in real life are accurately portrayed.
So, why is alcoholism so prevalent amongst the wealthy?
There is, it seems, a psychological cost to wealth. In 2016 the US news outlet, CNN, reported that children growing up in wealthy households were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.2
In a joint article, Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, highlighted growing evidence that children of the affluent are becoming “increasingly troubled, reckless and self-destructive.”2
The adage that money can’t buy happiness rings true here!
Lifestyle factors for the super-rich can be problematic – the industry they are linked to, peer pressure, work pressure, glitterati social occasions, enormous wealth, and so on, mean alcohol is readily available and alcohol price tags often serve as status symbols too.
Fine and rare whiskeys have price tags of millions of US dollars. A bottle of Isabella’s Islay, for example, is the most expensive whiskey that money can buy, priced at more than US$ 6 million!3
The dark side of success
Wealth is viewed by many as a blessing, but for some, it can become a curse. Alcoholism and other addictions seem to be exacerbated among the super-rich. That’s not to say addictions aren’t also a problem in other socioeconomic groups, just that the root causes come from a different place.
For UHNWIs, pressure to stay at the top forces many successful individuals to become functioning alcoholics. The reasons why this might be so includes:
Separation from parents
Many children in very wealthy families grow up being looked after by nannies and when old enough are sent to boarding school. Pressure in the boarding school environment, especially in boys’ schools, to drink until intoxicated is huge.
In hugely wealthy families, while children are growing up, parents are often busy with work, travel and attending exclusive social events. Feelings of loneliness and abandonment are common in children who experience this kind of upbringing.
Research shows that in many wealthy families, the near-total neglect of affluent youngsters is common and has severe ramifications.4 As children become teens, alcoholism and substance abuse can all too easily become the crutch used to suppress uncomfortable feelings or to escape anxiety and depression.
Pressure to achieve
In highly successful and wealthy families there is often the expectation to achieve and keep the family’s wealthy lineage going. There can be extraordinary pressure placed on one or two individuals in the family.
It is unsurprising that some in this situation turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, especially since great wealth makes it readily available.
In a situation where wealth is amassed beyond the comprehension of ordinary folk, it may seem like there is little to feel stressed about. But the fear of losing such wealth, power and status have its unique set of problems, often causing extreme levels of stress and anxiety.
Those in the limelight can also worry about public perception. This too can be crippling. And for wealthy people who don’t need to work, a lack of purpose can be the cause of deep unhappiness.
How to spot the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic
- One drink is never enough
- Finishes friends’ and family’s leftover drinks for them
- Hides alcohol – they have a secret stash in their desk drawer or car glove compartment
- Becomes hostile and argumentative when they can’t get a drink
- Forgoes meals for alcohol, and always drinks with meals
- Drinks alone
- No longer seems to get hangovers – has developed a tolerance
- Experiences blackouts
Excessive drinking comes at a price
People who drink excessively are at risk of a range of health issues.
There are three key phases to alcoholism. In the early stages, when a person’s alcohol consumption creeps up, drinking moves from being something that is enjoyed on social occasions to drinking every day.
At this stage, everything on the outside appears normal, but alcohol is starting to wreak havoc on the inside. For example, the liver starts to break down alcohol more easily to cope. There are chemical changes in the brain.
Initially, these changes enable greater tolerance to alcohol. But this usually leads to drinking more.
Excessive and persistent drinking then leads to a build-up of fat in the liver. More than 90% of alcoholics develop fatty liver disease.5 Again, at this stage there may be no outward symptoms and the damage is usually reversible if the person can stop drinking.
As alcoholism progresses, dependency increases. Going without a regular drink, the person can experience withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, excessive perspiration, nausea, vomiting, and insomnia.
Many men during this phase become angry, or irritable, and can’t be confronted about their drinking habits. But they will begin to look and feel unwell.
In its later stages, alcoholism leads to more serious outcomes, such as alcohol-related hepatitis and permanent damage to the liver. Cirrhosis of the liver is where irreversible tissue damage occurs, which can cause death. Around 60 to 90% of individuals with alcoholic cirrhosis die of their liver disease.6
Recovery is possible
Alcohol addiction is a severe problem. Unfortunately, in many cases, the individual will be in denial about their problem with alcohol, and it will take a crisis or a determined family member to encourage a person to seek help.
Even after that battle has been won, finding a therapy center and/or therapist with a deep understanding of life as a celebrity, or with business or political power, and huge wealth isn’t easy. Discretion and privacy are vital for rehabilitation.
At CALDA, our team of more than 40 therapists, specialists and medical experts have a deep understanding of the unique stresses experienced by the world’s richest individuals.
Addiction to alcohol is only the tip of the iceberg. Our program uncovers and treats all underlying issues, which commonly stem from emotional neglect and trauma.
Our full program (recommended for addiction treatment) is based on the CALDA Concept, a holistic approach across multiple disciplines. It includes innovative treatment strategies for overcoming phenomena such as trauma and addiction.
A personalized treatment program is developed based on the results of our comprehensive and interdisciplinary diagnostics. Programs, based on proven treatment strategies, include psychiatry and psychotherapy, orthomolecular medicine, and alternative and complementary therapies.
In our residences, we have created a home-from-home environment, with elegant, spacious and serene facilities. A premium full service with butler, chef and luxury limousine service with chauffeur is also included.
With the right help, anyone can free themselves from addiction. If you or a family member needs help, get in touch. We are happy to answer your questions. Be rest assured that we work with our clients one at a time, with absolute discretion and secrecy.
- Norwegian University of Science and Technology. 11 May 2017. Who in Europe drinks the most? The rich. ScienceDaily. [Accessed 14 June 2022]
- Wallace, K. 9Jan2016. Believe it or not, there are challenges to growing up wealthy. CNN Health. [Accessed online 14 June 2022]
- Website: LUXHABITAT Sotheby’s. Top 10 most expensive whiskey in the world in 2021. [Accessed 15 June 2022]
- Luthar S. S. (2003). The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth. Child development, 74(6), 1581–1593.
- Website: Drinkaware. Alcohol-related Liver Disease. [Accessed 15 June 2022]
- Morgan MY. 1994. The prognosis and outcome of alcoholic liver disease. Alcohol Suppl.2:335-43.