The saying goes, success breeds success, but what else can it bring?

According to Jan Gerber, Chairman of Paracelsus Recovery in Zurich, our infatuation with success can be problematic. Often, it means we overlook the other aspects of life in a thriving family business. The long hours, pressure and complex relationships can cause stress, compromise mental health and lead to addiction. Frequently, these issues go untreated because of the stigma associated with them.

Paracelsus Recovery addresses this void by focussing on mental health and addiction in the family business. Founded in 2012 as part of the Swiss Clinics Group, itself a family business, Paracelsus Recovery is one of the world’s most exclusive rehabilitation programs, offering solutions to those who have nowhere else to turn.

The family clinic works with one client at a time, eschewing the traditional group therapy model in favour of a personal approach – a methodology that makes Paracelsus Recovery unique. The clinic’s team of professionals sees each client for 8 to 12 hours a day individually. There are no shared facilities or communal sessions.

In Gerber’s experience, the risk of mental health issues negatively impacting both the individual and the business becomes magnified over time and with success. Family conflict and pressure to follow in the founder’s footsteps are among the most prevalent factors exacerbating these issues.

A preventive approach, according to Gerber, is the most effective way for family business members to look after each other’s mental health, so awareness and communication are critical. When it comes to addiction, family business members must be cognisant of and proactive with regards to each other’s mental health before it’s too late.

Mental Health and Addiction in the Family Business: The Silent Threat
Image courtesy of Jan Gerber.

How has the conversation around mental health evolved over the past decade?

Historically, addiction and mental health issues have been stigmatised, but lately, at least in the western hemisphere, we’ve seen some encouraging development. The UK has been a driving force behind the thaw. People are opening their eyes to the notion that trauma can lead to pain, and addiction can result from attempts to self-medicate. They’re beginning to see that addiction is neither a personal weakness nor a moral issue, and it can happen to anyone.

Well-known people coming forward to seek help and support each other have increased public awareness. When celebrities and role models talk openly about their problems, it sends the message that it is okay not to be okay.

Are the first two decades of the 21st century less conducive to mental health than the decades before?

Perhaps – life is increasingly fast-paced now. Our work lives and personal lives no longer have clear boundaries. Often, when we are at home, we still feel connected to the office. It becomes hard to switch off and focus on our need as human beings to connect with others. Many of us do not recognise the profound impact this barrier to human connection has on our well-being.

The other factor lies in how we communicate with each other now. We’ve seen an increase in anxiety disorders in younger people who have grown up immersed in the newest forms of social media. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real issue for many people.

Stress is the most significant trigger for anxiety – a key ingredient in mental health and addiction problems. We live in a world where both the young and old say they are under more stress than ever before.

Stress is the most significant trigger for anxiety – a key ingredient in mental health and addiction problems. We live in a world where both the young and old say they are under more stress than ever before.

How are addiction and mental health issues connected? 

Addiction is not a stand-alone phenomenon. Instead, addiction is a symptom of underlying issues that can be complex; a common scenario is self-medication in response to pain or some inner void.

This pain often stems from physical or psychological trauma, childhood abuse, a horrific accident or the loss of a loved one. When we experience trauma, we need to process that trauma and come to terms with it. If we don’t, that trauma can engrain itself into our conscious and subconscious. We can even store pain in our physical bodies.

This failure to address trauma at its root can lead to a pattern where anxiety stemming from that trauma becomes recurrent. A person experiencing pain may respond with a few drinks, a sleeping pill, antianxiety medication or even illicit drugs to chase those negative feelings away.

When the feeling of relief wears off, the pain comes back. Often, it’s worse than before, requiring stronger self-medication to make it go away. This is the cycle of addiction.

How can a family business lifestyle trigger the cycle of addiction?

Family conflict, all too often a reality in a family business, can be painful. Interestingly, some studies link ADHD to entrepreneurial drive and success, and ADHD correlates with alcoholism.

Family business success can also compound problematic personality traits such as narcissism. With a narcissistic decision-maker, an additional layer of complexity exists because everyday business decisions can be highly emotional and manipulative – even traumatic.

Family conflict, all too often a reality in a family business, can be painful. Interestingly, some studies link ADHD to entrepreneurial drive and success, and ADHD correlates with alcoholism.

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What should family members do when they notice their peers struggling with mental health issues?

First of all, be aware that mental health and addiction issues impact the well-being of a family business. The most successful family offices seek advice in an effort to understand mental health issues. Often, they pre-empt any negative consequences with preventative measures and standard protocols. Having a mediator or a therapist on retainer can help deal with a situation before it spirals out of control.

The best cure is prevention, but failing that, I strongly advise family businesses in crisis to reach out for help. Often, family members feel like they cannot have a rational dialogue because the situation has become too emotional. This is where an outside professional is indispensable, even just to bounce ideas and feelings off of. Furthermore, a professional can tell whether or not the situation constitutes a mental health crisis and, if it does, what can be done to address it.

Confrontational interventions can be traumatising. However, it is always a good idea to talk to an interventionist or treatment provider for advice about a specific situation.

It’s easy to tell someone that they need to enter detox; identifying what led them there in the first place is much harder. This is why we involve other family members in the treatment itself. Addiction is just a symptom: the long-term solution lies in treating the issues underlying the addiction and not the addiction itself.

What happens after a person completes your rehabilitation program?

We always remind ourselves that we are never dealing with a person in isolation. This is why it makes sense to involve the family throughout the course of the programme. Ideally, we work with them separately while the person of concern is in rehabilitation.

Usually, there is dedicated aftercare where a therapist stays with the client when he or she returns home. If the family can afford it, this is the most effective path.

Regardless, a person who has completed our programme needs to stay focused on the reason they get out of bed in the morning. This purpose might well be the family business, but it does not have to be.

Another critical factor for aftercare is improved family communication. When communication breaks down, it is easy to fall into familiar destructive patterns. Constructive communication is everyone’s responsibility, and a professional coach can help families learn and internalise new constructive communication patterns.

Even though family business is, by definition, a communal activity, family business members often feel alone in their struggles. Healthy communication is a constant reminder that we have access to help if we need it.