Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
Becoming a multimillionaire overnight is a dream come true. The picture envisaged is one of a new, fantastic, stress-free life. But in such fortunate circumstances, does life always take on the fabulous dimension we imagine?
In many cases, it is quite the contrary. Instant fortune can be a huge burden, creating severe financial and emotional challenges. Getting to grips with suddenly having an enormous amount of money may seem like a good problem to have, but it can be the catalyst for a spectrum of psychological health issues.
This blog discusses the phenomenon of sudden wealth syndrome and considers how ‘getting rich quick’ can impact mental health.
What is sudden wealth syndrome?
Psychologist, Dr Stephen Goldbart first coined sudden wealth syndrome after discovering that some people struggle to adapt to their change in circumstances when they become rich abruptly.1
He found that unexpectedly acquiring significant wealth posed psychological and emotional challenges to some people, with adjustment issues leading to a crisis of identity, depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
A crisis of identity
When life is dramatically altered overnight, it can leave a person feeling confused. An identity crisis is something Goldbart recognised in some wealth adopters. A person can suddenly feel uncomfortably different from their friends and family and may feel afraid to tell them about their fortuitous change in financial circumstances.
So, what is an identity crisis?
An identity crisis is when you question your place in life and the person you are. When a person unexpectedly becomes wealthy, it can make them feel unclear about the role they serve in the world and what their next steps should be.
“In psychology, a crisis typically refers to intense mental distress caused by the perception that a change is imminent and that you don’t have the resources to handle the change.”2
This is highly relatable to the sudden wealth situation.
It is interesting to consider Dickens’ literature, Great Expectations, as an example of the impact acquiring a fortune can have. In Great Expectations, Pip, an orphan, comes into a large fortune from an unknown benefactor.
He moves from the countryside to London, entering high society and putting pressure on himself to gain social standing. “He experienced an egotistical change in his personality as he became consumed by the social expectations of his inheritance.”3
Financial imposter syndrome
People who struggle with imposter syndrome feel undeserving of their achievements. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others think and that they will be found out, even though these individuals are usually highly talented and recognised as being so.
In her book, Ditching Imposter Syndrome, author Clare Josa writes that the four ‘P’s of imposter syndrome are perfectionism, paralysis, people-pleasing, and procrastination.4 All of these aspects can be exacerbated by sudden wealth syndrome.
With sudden wealth adoption, there can be a financial imposter syndrome where the person finds it hard to accept that they can now buy things they couldn’t afford. For example, they may continue wearing old shoes or put off routine health appointments.
The behavioural consequences and emotional challenges of sudden wealth
In acquiring wealth, behaviours, priorities, lifestyle choices, and aspirations change. Sudden wealth can impose a sense of responsibility, purpose and carefulness, and these individuals struggle least with the transition.
People with stable mental health who have worked hard and achieved excellence in their field tend to have a more measured and purpose-driven approach to their windfall.
However, the impact of sudden wealth on an individual’s behaviour can vary considerably. Those who exhibit extreme types of behaviours are more likely to encounter mental health difficulties.
The honeymoon period
Feelings of intense euphoria and excitement are usually a person’s first reaction to news of a windfall. When financial worries are eliminated, a person can feel liberated, safe, and free from stress. This is the honeymoon period, and most people will experience this after receiving news of unexpected newfound wealth.
While not a challenge in itself, the emotional comedown after the honeymoon period can spiral into deeper problems and could be particularly troublesome for people with existing mental health conditions, like, for example, bipolar.
Guilt and anxiety
Following the initial euphoria, when the dust settles and the realisation that life is about to change kicks in, individuals can find themselves grappling with many different emotions. Guilt, anxiety, and a fear of the unknown are common. With so much uncertainty, it can be a confusing and challenging situation to handle.
Some can feel undeserving of their windfall or guilty if the money comes at the expense of others, which can evoke feelings of shame. Complicated inheritances with unequal share-out between family members can create huge tensions and split families apart.
Coping with stress and anxiety can be especially tough when the expectation from others is to be joyous and grateful.
Inheritances come with their own set of emotional pressures. Receiving a large estate can trigger powerful and conflicting emotions, especially when tied to the death of a parent or loved one.
Fear and paranoia
A person might feel suspicious of friends, family and financial advisers or quickly fear losing their newly acquired fortune. Although it is perfectly normal to feel shocked and anxious when suddenly coming into money, in sudden wealth syndrome, the stress is prolonged, and this can cause a person to become paranoid over their wealth.
Secrecy and self-preservation
Sometimes, the person feels confused and conflicted by the new world they have landed in and becomes overwhelmed. Having to make lots of complex financial decisions can feel intimidating. Self-preservation can appear in the form of secrecy. Fear, stress, anxiety, and worry dominate, which can lead to deep depression and insomnia.
Secrecy can also be tied up with imposter syndrome, where an individual feels they don’t deserve their newfound wealth and tries to hide the news from friends and family.
Isolation and loneliness
Coming into wealth without warning can leave the wealth adopter feeling isolated and alienated. This is especially true if someone sells their business venture without a plan for what comes next. A businessperson used to being at the heart of the action can suddenly find themselves rich but without purpose.
Friends and family can also reinforce a sense of isolation if they distance themselves or treat the wealth adopter differently. This is not uncommon when wealth is an inheritance – a sudden, unexpected increase in money brings attitudes and behaviours different from those associated with earned money.
The isolation can come from lifestyle changes. Before a windfall, a person may have a job and structure in their day. If the person decides to give up work, it can leave a huge void. This is tied to the crisis in identity. Who are they now?
Research shows that loneliness can lead to various psychiatric disorders like depression, alcohol abuse, child abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.5
Frivolity and destructive behaviours
Some wealth adopters proudly wear their fortune like a medal and spend it frivolously. They feel powerful and love the freedom money brings. This is the behaviour model that most often leads to self-destructive patterns, like gambling or drug and alcohol abuse.
An individual might spend money hastily, impulsively, and indulgently, buying up material possessions they couldn’t have before, like expensive cars, property, and yachts, and travel on expensive holidays using private jets. They get a dopamine kick from it and the attention they receive.
It’s an exhilarating place to be for a while, but excessive shopping and socialising can take its toll, especially if alcohol and drugs are involved. Burnout can follow, and fortunes get frittered on extravagant purchases and risky investments, or by gambling it away.
Some friends and family will view this behaviour negatively, while others will cash in on generosity.
The relationship curse
Money changes people. Most people underestimate how sudden wealth will impact them individually, but even more so how it will affect relationships with friends and family. Friendships and relationships can be ripped apart by sudden wealth.
Some friends may distance themselves, either disapproving or feeling jealous and resentful of the person’s fortune. Others might become closer and more involved, though this may be for the wrong reasons, i.e. there is greed and an expectation that they are entitled to a share of the wealth. It’s common for long-lost relatives and distant friends to reappear once the news reaches them!
For the wealth adopter, it can become challenging to determine who is genuine. Suspicion can be heightened towards those cosying up to them. This suspicion can extend to those genuinely trying to help them, causing friction, and leading to the breakdown of relationships and bad investment decisions.
The treatment of UHNWIs at CALDA
Very few people acquire immense wealth and remain unchanged. Life takes on a new trajectory when one has an ultra-high net worth, which has its own unique set of pressures and challenges.
The CALDA Clinic is a private Swiss institution specialising in rehabilitation programs for the mental health of VIPs, UHNWIs and prominent figures.
At CALDA, our extensive team of international specialists, therapists and alternative practitioners deeply understand the unique mental health challenges UHNWIs face.
Absolute discretion, trust and humanity take priority with us.
Please get in touch with us if you would like a private, discreet preliminary chat with our esteemed Medical Director, Dr Claudia Elsig. She is happy to talk you through the CALDA programs and discuss your unique recovery needs.
- Scorsch III, I G. 6 Jul 2012. Too Much, Too Soon: How to Avoid Sudden Wealth Syndrome. Huffpost Website. [Accessed 11 Dec 2023].
- Gillette H. 8 Feb 2022. Identity Crisis: Signs, Causes, and How to Cope. Website: psychcentral.com [Accessed 13 Dec 2023].
- Weatherbys Private Bank. The Psychology of Wealth. Website: weatherbys.bank [Accessed 13 Dec 2023].
- Dunbar J. 18 Oct 2023. How to make imposter syndrome work for you. Website: happiful.com [Accessed 13 Dec 2023].
- Mushtaq R, et al. Sep 2014. Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Sep;8(9):WE01-4.