When things on Wall Street are good, they’re very good. But when they’re bad, it’s not only the market that reacts.
There’s a dark side to Wall Street; traders are eager to see a return on their investments. And brokers feel an urgent need to perform, regardless of market conditions. Unfortunately, this pressure can cause both investors and professionals to suffer. Many turn to drugs, and still others determine that the weight of the job is too much to handle.
What really happens on Wall Street when professionals feel burdened by financial hardship? What lies on the darker side of Wall Street? Are drugs as prevalent on Wall Street as popular culture would have us believe?
Drugs are, in fact, commonplace on Wall Street. From the doctor-prescribed to the more illicit street drugs, mind-altering substances have become par for the course among, in particular, brokers.
Financial Crisis and Mental Health
Consider the Great Depression. Prior to the United States stock market crash in 1929, the world-wide suicide rate remained constant, at about 12.1 per 100,000 people. Over the eleven years which followed, that number jumped to almost 19.
The United States suicide rate across 100 cities was an alarming 20 per 100,000 deaths. In Davenport, Iowa, for example, the number was highest, at 50.3. Other nations fared no better. Austrian suicides claimed 34.5 of every 100,000 deaths. There was an immediate spike in the numbers following the market crash, and those numbers continued to increase in the two years which followed. It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II that they began to decline.
The Great Depression is only one instance of a decline in mental health due to financial crisis. The global financial crash in 2008 prompted an additional 5,000 deaths, each ruled suicide. Most were men.
Alden Cass is a psychologist who works primarily with Wall Street professionals. In 2000, he published a study detailing the mental health of retail brokers. His findings? Approximately 23% of subjects suffered major depression. Of these, most were men, and most had among the highest income levels within the field.
This is in no way meant to be an exploration of suicide on Wall Street. Instead, the purpose to citing these facts is to bring to light just how acutely the financial and professional stresses of Wall Street can impact a person.
Financial stability has a tremendous impact on mental health. And, of course, not all who struggle with job-induced stress opt to end their lives. Some, it would seem, do just fine. Others have found a different way to cope with hardships: substance abuse.
Substance Abuse on Wall Street
You may remember the story of Jordan Belfort, a former stockbroker. Known as the Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort’s memoirs became popularized by the film of the same name.
Belfort’s memoirs, and the subsequent film adaptation, were among the first attempts by a Wall Street broker to truly illustrate just how stressful the financial culture can be. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Belfort describes Quaaludes, in particular, as a common drug of choice during the 1990s.
The 1990s weren’t the beginning of it, though. Wall Street brokers have long been on the radar of the DEA. One of the most notable cases was in 1987; the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted raids of four Wall Street brokerages. That morning, 19 employees were taken into custody for possession and distribution of cocaine.
Drug use on Wall Street has changed over the years. While cocaine has been a drug of choice since as early as the 1970s, Wall Street itself has changed. While there are still actual and literal brokerage offices on Wall Street, the modern trader takes a more remote approach.
The younger generations have become increasingly interested in trading, in particular day trading. As a result, drug use has changed, too. Sure, there are still Quaaludes. There’s still cocaine. But now, Ritalin, Adderal and Ecstasy have entered the “market.”
Provigil, Zoloft, Xanax, Lorazepam and even Viagra are prescribed to brokers, simply to deal with the stresses of the job. Uppers are most common, while marijuana is frequently consumed to counter them – to “chill out,” as it were.
But why? Wall Street brokers hold the American dream job: a fast-paced career in one of the financial capitals of the world. And money. Lots of money. Why are stock brokers and other Wall Street employees still turning to drugs?
Drugs and Wall Street: A Necessary Evil?
Stress is inexorably linked to addiction. And in addition to being linked with addiction, it’s also partially responsible for addiction treatment failure and relapse. Loneliness can prompt drug use. Peer pressure can, as well. Experimentation is commonly associated with the onset of addiction. “Will this Adderall help me get through the day any more easily?”
Wall Street employees sometimes work in excess of 120 hours each week. They hold the responsibility of others’ fortunes in their hands. They frequently miss a work-life balance, missing children’s birthday parties and anniversary celebrations. They are at constant war with both their minds and their bodies.
As a result, these people turn to that which may make them feel. Feel what? “Anything,” some have responded. Alcoholism is frequent amongst Wall Street brokers. Eating disorders are, as well. Then, of course, there are the drugs.
A vast majority of Wall Street brokers are phenomenally intelligent people. In interviews, these employees have described their decision to turn to drugs, claiming that they’d grown accustomed to being in control. Once work on Wall Street began, they no longer felt that way. Drugs allowed them some to regain some semblance of control.
Older employees have struggled with addiction caused by a change in mental health as well. These workers have noted that there are many more regulations now. So many, in fact, that it’s a full time job just to keep up with them. They’re not doing more work and making less money.
Old and young, seasoned and inexperienced, Wall Street employees continue to turn to drugs to make the career more bearable. Unfortunately, as noted previously, drugs aren’t always the answer. The suicide rate on Wall Street is 1.5 times the national average.
The Changing Landscape of Wall Street
Today, not all Wall Street employees report to an office, where they may be offered access to mental and physical health services. The internet has spawned a generation of DIY and virtual brokers; many brokers today can be found camped behind their computers in the confines of their homes.
The change in landscape doesn’t mean a change in addiction, however. Young brokers report an increased use of Adderall and Ecstasy, among others. Wall Street is known for its party culture, but that extends to those who aren’t physically in New York.
And it likely won’t stop. As long as the physical and mental demands of finance take a toll on those who work in the field, the drug use and suicide rate among these people will likely remain very high. While brokerage firms have begun to assist in providing interventions and mental health care, these services do little. Drug use is, simply, socially acceptable on Wall Street.