Gambling Goes Viral

By: Bruce Jones

When I started working on gambling addiction issues almost a decade ago, I was struck by the ubiquitous and destructive nature of this disorder. Gambling is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. We give lottery scratch-offs as Christmas presents, host office betting pools around March Madness, make casino games part of our festivals and fundraisers and so much more.

I also learned that, a decade ago, roughly half a million Ohioans were considered at-risk of becoming pathological gamblers and, stood at risk of paying a tremendous price. Many sobering research studies document that this addiction results in higher rates of divorce, domestic violence, bankruptcy, theft, other co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or alcoholism. Worst of all, it is connected to the highest suicide rates of any addiction.

And that’s what we knew back then. Since then, we’ve learned that the more ways to gamble, the more people who ante up. The more acceptable and “dope” it is to play, the more people join from the sidelines. And the more in the game, the more caught in a game they will likely never win.

Count on it. With the advent of legalized sports betting in Ohio and the available of online betting, gambling will go viral.

Consider these facts about what happened when other states permitted sports betting and online gambling:

  • Michigan – calls to the problem gambling helpline nearly tripled within a year
  • Connecticut – the calls for help more than doubled in the first few months
  • New York – the calls are already up nearly 50% in less than three months

Examples abound that show a direct cause and effect between access and addiction. This is a proximate disease. The number of cases rise when people can more easily and frequently engage.

It’s good that we have dedicated resources to helping people who may be hurt by the spread. That said, all three of these states, and more like them, found that the funding dedicated for education, prevention and treatment isn’t keeping pace with demand.

Ohio’s history prior to legalizing sports and online betting parallels that of other states. Casinos opened their doors in 2012. Statewide surveys conducted by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services found that by 2017, 10.3% of Ohioans were considered at-risk for pathological gambling (up from 5.7% in 2012), translating to more than 900,000 people. The problem almost doubled in five years, and it has continued to rise since.

Online gambling, like “likes” and “shares” on social media, significantly expands the number of participants and the impact of gambling. I’ve already treated many clients who got hooked through their favorite digital device. One spouse of a client said she had no idea he was gambling because he used his smart phone constantly for work. Those who gamble excessively often work hard to hide their problem from loved ones and even themselves. Imagine the impact when you can place a bet from anywhere, at any time and no one knows.

There may be no practical way to keep this often-harmless pastime from going viral. But, before people you love are swept up in the frenzy, ask yourself: What can I do to make sure that I don’t inadvertently foster someone’s addiction? How can I avoid triggering someone who is recovering from a gambling disorder into a relapse?

Maybe my stocking stuffers could be puzzles, my office-wide activity a volunteer night and instead of Bingo for money, how about a board game for fun?

Most importantly, familiarize yourself to the signs and symptoms of gambling disorder. Maryhaven is here to help, both the gambler and those who love someone who may gamble too much. Call 614-324-5425 or go to maryhaven.com/gambling for more information.

About the Author

Bruce Jones

Administrative Coordinator LSW, LCDC III, NCGC II

Bruce is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) and a Nationally-Certified Gambling Counselor Level II who has worked for Maryhaven since 2000. He saw the need for gambling services in Central Ohio in 2009 and asked Maryhaven to apply for a private grant from the Columbus Foundation to target help to those struggling with gambling addiction. The state then supplied funding after his vision was verified with the amount of clients seeking services that first year and Bruce has been working with individuals, family members, and communities ever since.

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