The Daily Show had a report the other night on “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” (SWS), a newly-minted disorder afflicting the wealthiest of the wealthy, or about “1% of the 1%,” as Jason Jones puts it:
I am a big fan of the saying attributed to T.H. Thompson and John Watson:
Be kinder than necessary,
for everyone you meet is fighting
some kind of battle.
Everyone has emotional problems. Anyone can suffer from depression, anxiety, and any number of other mental illnesses. There should be no stigma attached to it, and there should be help and support for those afflicted by it. By that, I mean everyone afflicted by it.
My first reaction is this: It is going to be very hard to get a typical paycheck-to-paycheck 47-percenter to care about the emotional malaise of a beleaguered billionaire. If a millionaire or billionaire is having difficulties coping emotionally, how the *%$#&*!@$# hard do you think it is for someone who has to work 2-3 jobs just to keep the kids fed and clothed?
That is not the best response, though. This is not a competition to see who is more beleaguered, beat-down, or grizzled. Each individual sees the world from a unique perspective, and anyone can, as I said, be struck by depression, etc. The thought that other people have it worse does very little to lift any one person’s spirits (and when you think about it, that is a very good thing.) Here is a redacted anecdote, and then I will tell you what I think the correct reaction to SWS would be.
When I was in college (I’m changing some details of this story to protect the people who probably don’t even know I have a blog), a guy lived down the hall from me who spent nearly every night for at least several weeks in an obvious state of deep depression (this is not a psychiatric diagnosis, mind you, but an observation based on my personal knowledge of how depression works.) Let’s call him Joe, because that was not his name. Joe sat outside his room, blaring Hootie and the Blowfish, chain smoking, chugging Jack Daniels, and giving the evil eye to anyone who so much as looked at him. No one, myself included, ever reached out to him or even asked him if he was okay. That was partly because of the stink-eye factor, but also because none of us understood why Joe had any cause to be depressed. Joe was a tall, handsome, athletic guy in a school full of nerds. He had a high-paying corporate job already waiting for him upon his graduation later that year. Every evening we saw him sitting out there, he had an absurdly beautiful blonde girl draped over him. The actress Blake Lively was probably about eight years old at the time, but this girl looked like she could have been Blake’s college-aged sister. In light of those factors, we thought, what possible reason could Joe have to be depressed? Two things: (1) Joe had recently suffered an injury that abruptly ended his athletic career, and (2) the circumstances of Joe’s life do not fucking matter. Joe’s depression could have resulted from the sudden upheaval in his life, or it could have just been his brain messing with him. It was completely unfair of us to expect him to be perfectly happy because of his looks, his future career, and the hottie factor.
Looking back on the situation now, I get it, sort of. I have been critically depressed for no reason at all, and for some very good reasons. Here’s the thing, though: without taking anything away from this guy’s difficulties, no one could reasonably expect any of us nerds, applying the sensibilities of nerdy 20 year-olds, to really appreciate his situation. We just saw the trappings of his life and envied them.
The same can be said for how most people react to this whole concept of SWS, or “affluenza,” a related concept that has been around for a while. It is profoundly difficult to truly sympathize with the malaise of people who can seek out as much therapy and health care as they could possibly want, who never have to worry about paying bills, or eating healthy, or not being able to afford to fix their car. We look at the people at the top and see all the “good” things they have, meaning the things we are all led to believe we should want: money, security, “nice things.” People on the top either take those things for granted and can focus on the malaise itself, or they feel the pressure of having it all and being hated for it. (There are probably more explanations than that, but those are the two that come to mind.)
That brings me to what, I believe, is the correct response to the concept of SWS, in two parts. First, the über-wealthy have the means to get help from people like the two therapists interviewed by Jason Jones. Get help, and don’t complain to the rest of us, because we are not in a position to care. Second, to the people who, as the two therapists in the Daily Show clip say, retreat into gated communities: if your wealth is causing you angst because it isolates you, you have the power to do something about that. You have the same capacity for depression as any other person, which just means that you are human. You have the right to feel how you feel, but your right to sympathy from others is limited by your own self-care. Every depression sufferer will eventually be told to stop the pity party and get help. You have a greater ability to seek help than anyone else in our society, if not the world. Do something about it.