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Mental Illness – An Overview

Mental illness can be defined as a disease of the brain that causes disruptions in one’s behavior and/or thought and therefore results in difficulty or inability to manage the general demands and routines of one’s life.

Mental illness falls on a continuum of severity that can range from mild up to severe. More than 60 million Americans have a mental illness in any given year, affecting one in four adults and one in five children at some point in their lives. As a result of the stigma typically associated with mental illness, a small percentage of people actually seek treatment.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, but many fall into the following five major categories: anxiety disorders; mood disorders; schizophrenia/psychotic disorders; dementias; and eating disorders. General symptoms can include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

General Effects of Affluence on Mental Illness

Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness weaken the immune system, making one more vulnerable to physical and mental ailments. On the other hand, an inflated sense of power and self is among the behaviors associated with certain mental health disorders.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have linked inflated or deflated feelings of self-worth to bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety and depression. In a study of more than 600 young men and women, researchers concluded that one’s perceived social status, or lack thereof, is at the heart of a wide range of mental illnesses.

Mental Illness Among Wealthy Children

Significant research on this topic has looked at the effects wealth has on children who are raised in affluent families. Scientists have found that on average, children from households with an overall income of $160,000 experience two times the standard rates of serious levels of depression, or somatic symptoms than their less wealthy counterparts.

Recent studies have suggested that the problems among affluent children fall into a few specific domains: substance use, anxiety, and depression. The two primary sets of potential causes are the pressures to achieve and isolation from parents.

Risk Factors

The first signs of problems emerge around seventh grade, around age 13. By this age, 7% of these boys are using marijuana and alcohol at least once per month. Further, symptoms of depression and anxiety begin to rise, especially among girls. Although experimentation with drugs and alcohol is normal for teens, wealthy adolescents typically have easier access and ample money to purchase. Among wealthy youth, substance use has been linked particularly with symptoms of depression and anxiety, highlighting potential efforts of self-medication. These findings are concerning as substance use of this type shows high continuity over time.

The seventh grade is also a significant marker in one’s development, when children begin to think about their long-term life goals. With the capacity for abstract thinking, adolescents at this age begin identity exploration. In hypercompetitive, wealthy communities, the question of “Who am I” morphs into, “What will I become? Will I get into a top-ranked college? How do I achieve that?”

The high pressure to achieve is then experienced as parental criticism. Children feel that a failure to accomplish will significantly diminish parental acceptance and the esteem with which they regard them. Perceived parental criticism is linked with a variety of problems and within this high-pressure environment, many children develop stress-related symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

Isolation from parents, referring to an overall lack of supervision and conferring of discipline and values, further exacerbates the problems highlighted above. Many affluent teens are left alone at home far too often and actually end up craving the discipline that children of that age need.

Finally, risk is engendered not necessarily by family wealth specifically, but by living in the cultural context of affluence. Impossibly high expectations are transmitted by the entire community, comprised of teachers, coaches, schools and peers.

Gender Differences

Girls face enormous demands on both sides of the gender spectrum. The emphasis on physical attractiveness is a significant stressor among wealthy girls; the pressure to be thin and beautiful causes a lot of stress and questions of self-worth. But girls are also expected to succeed in domains that are more traditionally male, such as sports and academics. As a result, girls are more troubled than their male counterparts and internalization in the form of anxiety and depression is common. But they also act out through rule breaking, delinquency and substance use. Eating disorders plague girls to a large extent as well.


like for girls, social dominance is related to good looks, athletic prowess, and substance use. Substance use has been seen among suburban boys to be actively endorsed by their peer group, with high use linked to their popularity among their peers. All of these societal constructs have detrimental effects on the mental health of these boys.


Mental health services are widely available for the wealthy, which makes one wonder why problems among this group persist. One explanation is that although high-income parents are generally willing to place their troubled adolescents in psychotherapy or on medication, they are much less willing to explore the less transparent problems in their kids, within themselves or the family dynamics. In one example, research showed that parents tend to be aware if their child is depressed, but typically will not seek professional help unless the symptoms are such that parents or other adults are inconvenienced.

Concern for privacy and potential embarrassment are also significant constraints to upper class parents seeking help for their children. Affluent adults are typically concerned about keeping family troubles private, feeling more compelled to maintain a façade of having it all together that addressing the real issues affecting their children.