Jan Gerber: What I Learned from Providing Addiction and Mental Health Treatment for 30+ Billionaires over a Decade
Meeting one of the top UHNWI rehab experts in the world.
As Founder and Managing Director of Paracelsus Recovery in Zurich, Switzerland, Jan Gerber has dedicated much of his career to guiding scores of UHNW families through the difficult work of healing from mental health issues and addiction.
There’s nothing simple about addiction treatment, but Gerber possesses an eloquent understanding of the unique issues facing families of extreme wealth. He promotes the idea that meaningful, loving, respectful relationships support resilience and stability for mind and body.
He is adamant that everyone deserves empathy and understanding, no matter their family status or the size of their bank account.
For anybody who has witnessed Gerber and his staff at work, it comes as no surprise that Paracelsus Recovery has become the leading provider of bespoke mental health and addiction treatment for UHNW families, high-profile individuals, and celebrity clients from around the globe.
In this exclusive interview, we sat down to talk with Gerber about the unique set of problems facing ultra-high net worth families. He begins with a straightforward discussion of issues that contribute to addiction and mental health issues.
Dynamics in wealthy families take on dimensions that are unimaginable for most families
Throughout his years of working with prosperous families, it has become clear to Gerber that the stakes are extremely high and that power struggles, feuds and intrigues take on monumental proportions that become increasingly entrenched and destructive.
Tremendous pressure and anxiety can prompt people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to find relief, a fact for people from any walk of life, but a particular problem for the very wealthy.
Gerber goes on to explain that the ultra-wealthy tend to confuse happiness and pleasure, while the two concepts are actually very different. Happiness, he says, is more difficult to attain; it builds over time and is ultimately more appreciated and highly valued.
Gerber advises affluent families that while happiness isn’t linked to the numbers in a bank account, how people choose to use their wealth can greatly impact their level of happiness. For instance, he is concerned that easy access to significant funds allows well-to-do youth indulge in unlimited pleasures of any kind. All too often, that type of pleasure represents not true happiness, but instant gratification.
The party life, complete with plenty of drugs and sex, provides excitement and alleviates stifling boredom, but may serve to medicate a growing inner void.
Condensing his knowledge to layman’s terms, Gerber says that access to pleasure without restraint can often lead to addiction when the brain’s reward system is activated by pleasurable feelings, much the same way it is triggered by the high generated by consumption of alcohol or drugs. Soon, tolerance builds and the pleasurable activity becomes less exciting. In time, this cycle leads to profound boredom and depression.
Often, young people from prosperous families feel a great deal of pressure to excel at school and to succeed in their social lives, at sports and a host of other extracurricular activities. It may be understood that they will attend a certain prestigious college, or that they will assume a position in the family business.
Ultimately, privileged offspring may feel like their entire lives are laid out ahead of them, and that they have very little say in the matter.
How can parents tone down their expectations?
It’s not only parents that pile on the expectations. Gerber says that teachers, coaches, and even friends contribute, unintentionally, to the relentless pressure cooker environment. Constant worry about potential failure can lead to addiction, or to crippling depression and anxiety.
Over the years, Gerber has witnessed that young people may be so busy living up to expectations that they fail to develop their own unique set of interests or to explore who they are as individuals and what they want from their lives. Their self-image becomes skewed, he says, and this would be difficult for anybody.
While it’s appropriate for parents to want their children to do their best, Gerber stresses to parents that good grades or athletic excellence should never be placed above kindness and decency. He warns against the tendency to view children as trophies.
Basing relationships on love and respect: Easier said than done
It’s often lonely at the top and that while UHNW people often struggle to build positive, stable relationships based on love and respect, they tend to be suspicious and mistrustful of outsiders.
There’s no question that money makes life easier in many ways, but Gerber acknowledges that growing up with great wealth and privilege presents a particular set of problems unrealized by people in the middle-income brackets. Many kids growing up in monied families develop trust issues, and with good reason. It’s difficult for well-to-do kids to determine if their friends are sincere or if people like them only for what they can offer.
This lack of trust and suspicion toward others makes it difficult for wealthy children to connect with other people. Some kids from UHNW families feel they need to hide their financial standing, a tactic known as “stealth wealth.” They find it difficult to develop relationships with anybody outside their family, or they may surround themselves with kids from other well-to-do families. This can be destructive and extremely isolating.
Research, such as the groundbreaking Harvard Grant Study, one of the longest-running studies on human development, has proven that our relationships have a powerful impact on our health and happiness. The lesson for parents, Gerber says, is that kids with plenty of quality time with both parents are more likely to thrive than those who spend their childhood with nannies and boarding schools.
The loneliness and isolation of the super-wealthy: Growing up with money and privilege
Sometimes, Gerber says, busy, hard-working parents feel guilty for the lack of time and attention spent with their children, and to compensate they offer material compensation. Although well-intended, things tend to work the opposite way when life is too easy and kids aren’t accustomed to being challenged. They can develop a short fuse and low tolerance to a frustration that shows up in their behaviour and may lead to addiction and mental health problems down the road.
With his typical compassion for the travails of UHNW families, Gerber reminds that while parenting is difficult for busy moms and dads, absolutely nothing can take the place of quality time with children.
When Gerber discusses the challenges and rewards of great wealth, he places a great deal of emphasis on the fact that wealthy parents hope for the same things all parents hope want — for their children to feel safe and loved, to be healthy and happy, and to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The problem, he says, is that all too often, a sense of purpose is lacking and young adults are left unmoored and adrift. Gerber is a firm believer that everyone needs a reason to get out of bed every morning, and for most of us, that means showing up at a job. “When we have responsibilities, we are accountable to others. Life takes on purpose and meaning.”
Although work is a stabilizing factor, Gerber worries that ready cash and trust funds make a job unnecessary for the ultra-rich and that too many privileged kids have access to an incredible amount of money before they’re mature enough to handle it. The normal human reaction, he says, is to enjoy life and have a good time.
Gerber takes issue, however, with the popular concept of unmotivated, over-privileged prima donnas born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Although the idea persists, it’s not the norm for most UHNW families.
Disorders that Plague the Wealthy: Affluenza, ADHD and Narcissism
Affluenza is a term bandied about by the media for at least the last couple of decades. Although it has yet to be recognized as a legitimate disorder, many mental health experts agree that the idea of affluenza isn’t completely far-fetched. If a young person is raised without a strong moral compass, how can he be expected to behave like an upright citizen?
Although he acknowledges that the problem exists, Gerber says that in his experience, affluenza affects only a very small subset of wealthy kids. Gerber feels strongly that such labels are counterproductive, and that it should never be assumed that all affluent parents are negligent, or that they turn a blind eye to their child’s drinking and drug use.
While discussing disorders that tend to follow prosperous families, Gerber turns to the subject of ADHD, which he says isn’t always a bad thing when it’s harnessed and used to best advantage. He comments that people with ADHD tend to be successful in the business world because they tend to be creative, passionate, adventurous risk-takers who are driven to succeed.
The downside, he says, is that for a person whose mind is constantly in high gear, it’s difficult to concentrate for long periods and organization tends to be a struggle. People with the disorder may become frustrated and bored with routine. In time, life becomes exhausting.
Gerber says the problem, however, is that ADHD, which often goes undiagnosed, is a difficult disorder that can’t be simply turned off and on at will. Sooner or later, many people turn to alcohol, medications or illicit drugs to find relief.
Gerber also acknowledges that narcissistic personalities are not uncommon among UHNW families, although probably not because the rate of narcissism is any higher than the general population, but because it’s easier for people of wealth and power to live out their narcissistic traits unchallenged.
It’s a difficult situation, Gerber says, because a narcissistic family member can fuel a conflict that adversely affects family dynamics in very destructive ways. The standard advice to someone with a narcissist family member is to just “get out,” but that isn’t a viable solution when a person is financially dependent on the narcissistic individual.
The stakes of “just leaving” are often too high to be considered. A person who feels trapped in such a situation is likely to feel anxious, stressed and depressed, which may compel them to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
How can parents guide their children to make better life choices?
Gerber says that access to a significant amount of money carries a number of risks for the future in terms of emotional health. He advises that all kids need to develop healthy coping skills, which may require mom and dad to tighten the purse strings.
It’s important for parents to be open about finances, and to instil their offspring with a strong work ethic and healthy philanthropic values at an early age.
There’s an old saying in the financial world: “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” One in-depth study that followed 2,500 UHNW families over a 20-year period revealed that 70 per cent of those families couldn’t sustain wealth beyond the third generation, and over half of those blamed a serious breakdown of trust and communication.
Gerber advises concerned parents that trust funds shouldn’t be paid out in a lump sum the moment kids turn 18 or 21, and suggests that a young adult shouldn’t be expected to manage large amounts of cash. It’s important, he says, that funds are well-structured and tied to certain conditions such as an education and a job.
However, he stresses that these conditions can’t be so rigid or stifling that young adults don’t have space to grow and learn — even if they make a few mistakes along the way. Many affluent families find that it works well to develop a plan for an incremental payout over time.
Gerber tells us that many affluent parents prefer to do things the old-fashioned way; they give kids a reasonable allowance linked to certain age-appropriate chores, and if chores aren’t accomplished, there is no allowance. Chores increase in difficulty and responsibility as the child matures.
Older kids may be ready for a credit card, which will help them learn how to manage money and build a good credit rating without racking up a lot of debt. A checking account helps teens learn how to track their money and how it is spent.
It’s also important to talk about the family’s emphasis on philanthropy and the importance of giving back, Gerber advises. Charitable giving and philanthropy are important issues for most UHNW families, and those concepts should be emphasized to offspring at an early age.
Is there a good time to start talking about money?
Families who manage to hold on to wealth across generations are those that share a commitment to family unity, says Gerber. Those families impart values about wise management of funds, and they ensure that all members have a voice in important decisions.
Many financial experts agree that kids are ready to hear about money and wealth when they’re about 12 years old. If a family business is involved, most pre-teens are ready to begin learning the ins and outs.
Approach the subject with sensitivity and don’t define personal value by what’s in the bank account, Gerber suggests. It isn’t necessary to discuss net worth until later, but it’s more important for children to understand how the family’s wealth was created in the first place, and what was sacrificed.
Gerber indicates that the importance of telling children about their family history and how the money was passed from generation to generation isn’t just conjecture. The concept is backed up by solid research indicating that knowing about one’s family history helps to avoid mental illness and addiction. This is true for all families, but the message holds special importance for the very wealthy.
Treatment and recovery: Helping UHNW families
Gerber understands that affluent families often hesitate to seek much-needed treatment, usually citing concerns about time, work responsibility, and justifiable worries about lack of privacy and confidentiality. When asked about effective ways of treating the very wealthy, he stresses that UHNW individuals require culturally competent care and an understanding of their unique issues.
According to Gerber, it’s critical for treatment providers to recognize that each person is different. He advises families struggling with mental health problems or addiction to seek out a treatment centre like Paracelsus Recovery, which places a high premium on individualized treatment for monied individuals and families.
“We have experience with the issues that UHNW individuals and families face, and we provide a high degree of empathy and understanding. It’s important to provide the luxurious environment to which the affluent are accustomed and to respect their work schedule and responsibilities. With flexible planning, we make it all work.”