Addictions impact people on all economic levels, but for those with a high net worth, the damage they cause can be particularly dramatic and irreparable.
Financial advisors, however, are in a unique position to identify and support clients who are struggling with addictions because of the strong relationships they have with them.

The ability to identify addiction early and to strategize clinically and culturally effective interventions for clients can mean the difference between recovery and ruin.

Advisors, for example, need to be aware that wealthy lifestyles typically make it easier to deny or hide a substance abuse disorder or an addiction. In fact, high-net-worth individuals with a substance abuse problem frequently function at full capacity. They’re known as “high-functioning addicts.”

Moreover, friends, relatives and business partners frequently do not realize that they may be enabling an addict’s self-destructive behavior by overlooking binge drinking, personality changes, recklessness or flat-out denial of a problem.

The Nature Of Addiction
Not too long ago, people would never imagine that a Fortune 500 executive could struggle with addiction. Addicts were thought of as people living on the fringes of society, barely getting by financially. But this stereotype, which still lives strong in the minds of some people, is wrong. Substance abuse can strike anywhere or anyone, regardless of wealth.

One area where wealth can make a difference, however, is in the ability to spot someone who may be hiding an addiction problem.

First, let’s review the warning signs that someone may be suffering from addiction, which are fairly common:
• Overdrinking in social situations.
• Binge drinking (more than five drinks every two hours for men or four drinks for women).
• Obsessive thoughts about drinking, sex, gambling, etc.
• Mood changes.
• Changes in physical appearance.
• Erratic spending patterns.

These symptoms add up to sometimes pretty disturbing behavior—the type of activity that, for most people, could lead to unemployment or other unfortunate events.

Wealthy people, however, can more easily get through life with those symptoms because they typically answer to no one but themselves. They’re not beholden to a boss or a deadline or a time clock.

This lack of consequences, coupled with a lack of accountability, enable high-net-worth individuals to operate below the addictive disorder radar screen. 

Multiple Addictions
Many addicts face more than one addiction—a condition known as Addiction Interaction Disorder (AID). In those with AID, addictions not only coexist, but also interact with each other.

For example, a person who has AID can have an addiction to drugs or alcohol, along with addictions to shopping, sex, gambling, eating, work or even the Internet. Left unidentified and untreated, these multiple disorders can become chronic and progressive and negatively impact an individual’s health and lifestyle.

These process addictions, as they are sometimes called, can create as much havoc in a person’s life as any substance, and the patient often has the associated withdrawal and tolerance symptoms seen in traditional substance abuse.

In individuals struggling with AID, drugs are essentially interchangeable with certain activities. Someone who is recovering from a cocaine addiction, for example, may replace it with a shopping addiction, replacing cocaine with another action that activates the same pleasure center of the brain.

Research has shown that substance abuse and dependence rarely occur in a vacuum. Many people addicted to drugs or alcohol have a second type of addiction. Consider the following anecdotes as examples of real-world situations that a financial advisor could observe in a high-net-worth client:
• Jane is a 73-year-old widow with homes on Park Avenue in Manhattan, in Southampton, N.Y., and in Palm Beach, Fla. Jane was married to the same man for 47 years until he recently passed away. She has a son who is a successful urologist, a twice-divorced daughter and four grandchildren.

Her husband made his fortune in the waste management industry. “It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid the bills,” Jane says when talking about her rags-to-riches story. Both Jane and her husband were children of the Depression. During their marriage, neither Jane nor her children knew what they stood to inherit and were shocked to learn they each would be receiving around $100 million from her late husband’s estate.

After her husband’s death, Jane began having panic attacks. At her son’s insistence, she went to see the family’s internist, who prescribed Klonopin for her anxiety and Ambien for sleep. Within three months, Jane found herself compulsively shopping for clothes and household goods she didn’t need on QVC and for Ambien and Klonopin from illegal sources on the Internet. Her daughter became concerned about Jane’s well being after visiting her in Palm Beach with her kids over spring break. To her horror, Jane’s daughter saw that her mother had filled an entire bedroom with boxes that weren’t even open, and had gained about 20 pounds from late-night ice cream binges that her mother couldn’t remember. When confronted, Jane denied she had a problem.

• Nicole is a 33-year-old art consultant who lives off a $23 million trust fund her grandfather set up for her as part of his sophisticated tax strategy. While her consulting business barely broke even, Nicole found herself becoming more dependent on alcohol. She was terrified by the frequent blackouts she was having after intending to just have “a glass or two of wine” with colleagues and clients. In addition, Nicole found herself compulsively monitoring what she ate and skipping meals to “save up on calories” that she would prefer to consume through drinking. She was alarmed by the weight she put on, and in addition to restricting what she ate, began to abuse laxatives.

• Tom was the founding partner of one of Wall Street’s most venerable commodities trading firms. A man of humble beginnings, he made his way through Williams College and Harvard Business School on merit scholarships and hustle. “I’ve been working since I was 11,” he would tell anyone who would listen. Incredibly proud of what he described as his middle-class work ethic and family values, he and his firm were blindsided by a sexual harassment suit brought by a female analyst who said Tom made an inappropriate advance on her when he was intoxicated at a firm reception.

Tom had no recollection of the event and is now in the middle of an expensive, protracted, humiliating and embarrassing lawsuit. In the discovery process, it came to light that Tom had spent more than $100,000 over the last 18 months on high-end strip clubs and escort services. Married for 27 years to his high school sweetheart and the father of two college-age boys attending Ivy League colleges, Tom is horrified about the damage he has caused.

It is important to look at the human element of these stories and the way that AID can present itself. Advisors to addicted individuals and their families should be aware that there are programs that cater to the unique clinical and cultural needs of high-net-worth patients and their families. Central to these needs is the added level of isolation that comes from being a wealthy individual and the complex family, social and professional systems that depend on his or her financial support.

Approaching Addicted Clients
As a financial advisor, it’s important to be aware of warning signs and recognize how you can identify behavior in clients that indicates the possible presence of an addictive disorder. But also keep in mind that you are their financial advisor, not their doctor.

The best way to handle a situation where you suspect a client has an addiction problem is with the client’s family, who may already be aware of the problem, but feel too powerless or terrified to do anything about it. Typically, it is the client’s family that brings the problem to the advisor’s attention.

It’s important that the advisor seeks out competent and licensed addiction and mental health professionals to join the family’s team, and works collaboratively with them to strategize an appropriate intervention.

It’s also important for advisors to be knowledgeable on the latest treatment approaches so they can provide their clients with exceptional care. These practices include residential care, family therapy and anti-craving medications.

Remember that substance abuse among high-net-worth individuals is a complex problem that never occurs in a vacuum or discriminates across socioeconomic lines. It requires sophisticated and culturally sensitive solutions that involve a concrete plan. This plan should include a point of entry, a course of treatment that is attached to consequences for failure to comply and an awareness that recovery is for life, not just for a fiscal quarter.

Paul Hokemeyer, J.D., Ph.D, is a senior clinical advisor at the Caron Ocean Drive treatment clinic in Florida.