NEW CANAAN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Cocaine and martinis on Wall Street? Nothing new there. Masters of the Universe admitting they have an alcohol problem? Not so common.
Experts say more and more people in finance are seeking treatment for addiction as the global economic crisis sinks its teeth into a high-stakes industry where confidence is the name of the game and nobody wants to admit to a weakness.
“We absolutely do see more people coming in naming either a job loss or huge financial reversals or big investments with Bernie Madoff,” said Sigurd Ackerman, medical director at Silver Hill Hospital rehabilitation facility in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“They’re being admitted with depression or increases in substance abuse, or both.”
Ackerman said there was a high concentration of financial professionals in the town, 40 miles from New York, whose main streets are lined with high-end boutiques catering to the well-heeled wives of hedge fund managers and bankers.
“You’re supposed to be a master of the universe, you’re supposed to be on top of everything,” said one financial services executive who began alcohol rehab in August.
“There’s not a lot of sensitivity training or meetings where you sit around and ask how everyone is feeling,” said the Connecticut executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “No one walks around saying ‘I feel your pain.'”
Alcohol has long oiled the wheels of commerce on Wall Street, where bankers working long hours will entertain clients over dinner and drinks, or let off steam at late-night clubs with hard liquor and drugs.
Robert Curry, founder of Turning Point for Leaders, a coaching and consulting firm in New Canaan that creates treatment programs for senior executives, said the financial crisis was a factor in more drink and drug use.
“We’ve got more than 50 homes in foreclosure in this town and that’s unheard of,” Curry said. “Domestic violence incidents have spiked, and that is very closely tied to substance abuse.”
Struggling with a divorce, the Connecticut executive sought help at Turning Point. A residential rehab program will be just the first step in a program that would last at least a year and include follow-up counseling, therapy and support groups.
Curry is a former financial executive who started working with substance abusers two decades ago, around the time his alcoholic father died and he realized he had a drinking problem of his own. Despite the recession, demand is growing.
“Companies are downsizing,” he said. “Budgets are being trimmed, and yet we’re seeing an increase in our business.”
Clients include bankers, businessmen and doctors and are overwhelmingly male.
Harris Stratyner, a psychologist with Caron Treatment Centers, a leading non-profit addiction treatment foundation with offices in Manhattan, said stars of the financial world were by nature more prone to risky and extreme behavior.
“There’s an adrenalin rush that’s connected to economics,” he said. “Why are so many people attracted to that world? Not all, but many, already are adrenalin junkies, and are looking for the high highs and the low lows.”
Stratyner said economic anxiety can push people over the edge, but also allows addicts to rationalize their behavior, blaming stress or claiming they can’t afford treatment.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are unconsciously ... grateful that there’s a problem going on, so that someone really and truly has an excuse to get high,” he said.
Stratyner said mental illness and addiction, which often occur together, cost the United States $171 billion a year in lost workplace productivity.
Joseph Califano, a former U.S. secretary of health who founded the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in 1992, said anxiety clearly raised the risk of substance abuse in all socio-economic groups.
People drink more in hard economic times, Califano said, but banks and other financial firms have traditionally not done enough to help employees cope.
“There’s still tremendous stigma and shame,” he said. “This is not a moral failing, it’s a disease.”
Another recovering alcoholic, aged 64, who works on Wall Street also requested anonymity because of the stigma.
“It’s not so easy to get somebody to recognize their problems,” he said. “If you have a series of occasions where you don’t remember parts of the evening, that is a bit of a warning sign that maybe you should be seeking some help. The other is if embarrassing things happen to you.”
A month in rehab costs from $25,000 at Caron up to around $60,000 at high-end private facilities. Curry said most of his clients pay out of pocket for privacy reasons.
The Connecticut-based executive was paying his own way.
“It’s more than I’d like,” he said. But “it’s less expensive than losing your job ... less expensive than losing a client or losing your family, or losing your home or getting in trouble with the law.”
Editing by Doina Chiacu