The affluenza buzzword

[Note: The Affluenza Project is completely unrelated with The Inheritance Project.]

Jessie H. O’Neill  is the author of a 1997 book entitled The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, which I read shortly after its publication. O’Neill created the word “affluenza” by playing with the word “influenza,” deleting the letters “inf-”, adding “af”, and then combining them with “-luenza.” I wanted to see if I could find any dictionary definitions, and I did find affluenza in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is defined there as “a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.”

Although I spent considerable time searching the Internet I did not find any other definitions. Affluenza is not found in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. (DSM 5) I also searched the web site for the American Journal of Psychology but found nothing.

O’Neill considers affluenza a legitimate medical term describing a mental disorder. She also talks about the “symptoms” of affluenza, as if it were a disease or a mental disorder. In other words, she sees affluenza as a pathology and has been marketing it as such since 1997.

I have been asking myself: is “affluenza” is for real”? A 2-page description on her web site begins: “Simply put, affluenza is a harmful or unbalanced relationship with money or its pursuit. Clinically, [it is] the collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neurosis and behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of or desire for wealth.” She then continues to describe the “symptoms” of affluenza. Though this description is useful—“the assumption that money can, should and does buy happiness—what I [i.e. O’Neill] call the myth of the American dream. As a nation, we have developed the [sic] false sense of entitlement as well as an inability to delay gratification, which is characteristic of affluenza. Far from guaranteeing happiness, wealth or the single-minded pursuit of it can destroy happiness, or—at the least—exacerbate existing problems.”

However, this invented word does not meet the necessary qualifications of the DSM5 or any other legitimate classifaction of mental disorders.

 O’Neill also claims that “affluenza can be successfully treated.” Here again is the emphasis on pathology. In addition, she claims that her book is “the definitive book on and how to better understand and reach the affluent.” Her web site repeatedly engages in this kind of self-promotion.

O’Neill has indeed been successful at marketing her word. In 2013 affluenza was used in a legal defense for Ethan Couch, a teen from an affluent Texas family, who took his father’s car and was later witnessed by a surveillance camera stealing beer from a store. While drunk (his blood alcohol content was 24%—three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas) he killed four pedestrians and severely injured three others.

“Texas State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Couch to 10 years probation for drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring three others after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, not prison. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility . . . that the teen will be attending will cost his family $450,000 annually. At a February 5, 2014 hearing, Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, said ‘Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also [his parents’ willingness and ability] to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different.’”

“[Prosecutor] Wynn ripped the media and the public’s focus on ‘affluenza,’ and said that his client was misunderstood. He said that the reporting of the Couch case had “so twisted the facts that were actually presented in court that I don’t think the truth will ever be able to come out now.” (“Ethan Couch,” Wikipedia)

Recently affluenza has been picked up widely by the media and used, in my opinion, indiscriminately. A recent article (April 11, 2014) in the Globe and Mail reports on the tragic suicide of one of Bob Geldof’s children, Peaches. She was twenty-five. The caption under her photo reads: “Like many children born into great wealth, Bob Geldof’s second daughter struggled to make sense of her life.” In this article by Leah McLaren, reference is made to The Golden Ghetto. McLaren quotes McNeil here when she reports that “McNeil writes that … inheritors often show ‘an inability to delay gratification, unwillingness to tolerate frustration, feelings of failure, and a sense of entitlement.”

Some questions remain: Is affluenza actually a mental disorder? Is its classification as such helpful? Or does it cause more harm than good?