It's hard to believe that "affluenza" was an even remotely legitimate term before the Ethan Couch case of 2013. In fact, by the time Couch's psychologist blamed his four counts of intoxicated manslaughter on affluenza, it had already earned its place in the dictionary. According to Merriam Webster, yes, affluenza is a real thing. There are two definitions:
a. feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolation experienced by wealthy people
b. extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships
Affluenza gained some notoriety in 2001 with the publication of the anti-consumerism book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. The book, written by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, defines affluenza more distastefully than old Merriam.
a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more
Even prior to that in 1997, psychologist Oliver James described a "virus" he believes has swept across America and you don't need to be wealthy in order to feel pressured by it. In his book Britain on the Couch, he explains the epidemic of the West:
Advanced capitalism makes money out of misery and dissatisfaction, as if it were encouraging us to fill up the psychic void with material goods
Later in 2007, he published Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane. According to James, affluenza affects the way we judge our own appearances and measure happiness. We scrutinize our attractiveness and how young or old we look. We seek internal peace through the acquisition of external products. Our culture is all about the quick fix. It doesn't seem like you need to be wealthy in order to feel that wrath.
Regardless of which definition is most accurate, affluenza doesn't evoke sympathy or pity for the "victim" of it. On the contrary, it prompts a feeling of disgust at the way individuals evade accountability for their actions, blaming external factors before they take an introspective moment to assess the way they've chosen to live. If affluenza is truly an epidemic, a product of our consumerist society, it impresses itself on everyone in some way or another. The point is, we all feel it and we all choose how to deal with it.
It's shocking that a diagnosis of affluenza, then, would be considered in a court trial for a 16-year-old boy who experiences the pressures that every other 16-year-old experiences to some extent. Affluenza, in a sense, is synonymous with millennials' addiction to technology. Sometimes, for example, it can be exceedingly difficult to be entertained by the simple things in life when we're used to having the Internet at the tips of our fingers. Does that mean that a teenager who killed someone while texting in a car should blame their actions on the generation's obsession with technology?
The Huffington Post published an article on teenagers who received more serious sentences for intoxicated manslaughter than Couch. It includes a 16-year-old illegal immigrant who was tried as an adult for killing a mother and her unborn child in a drunk driving accident. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. And his defense expert didn't blame his recklessness on the difficulties faced by immigrants who have to assimilate to American culture and its not-always-welcoming attitude towards immigrants. If the courts choose this divergent avenue that utilizes theories as scapegoats, they're going to have to be more thorough. Affluenza may be an epidemic, but it isn't an excuse and neither, really, is any external circumstance.