Harmless Harm

By: Bruce Jones

It claimed almost 200 lives in Quebec between 2005-2013. In 2010 alone, 233 Hong Kong citizens succumbed to it. It kills indiscriminately, taking NFL wide receivers, beloved sisters and unlucky college students. It may be more widespread than we will ever know for it often leaves no clear trail of evidence.

What is it? The number of pathological gamblers who commit suicide.

The World Health Organization estimates that, of approximately one million suicides each year, five percent are related to compulsive gambling. The National Council on Problem Gambling tells us that twenty percent of gambling addicts will attempt to kill themselves, a suicide rate that is more than double that of any other addiction.

How does something that many see as harmless cause such irreparable damage?

Alternet blogger Chris Wright explained it well:

“For the majority of addictions, how much you spend is regulated by how much the body can endure. There is only so much heroin, cocaine or vodka you can consume before you end up in a hospital or a morgue. Gambling is subject to no such constraints… the central befuddling fact is this: Gambling kills you because it doesn’t kill you.”

In other words, an addiction with seemingly no limits won’t stop — until you do.
And in that game, you lose.

As a counselor, I felt the call to work with those suffering from gambling addiction because I saw how fatal this disorder can be. Our society sugarcoats this hard truth. We’re inundated with action-packed ads, gleaming photos and slick billboards. We see people happily rolling dice, scratching Lottery tickets, celebrating as their horse crosses the finish line or as they scoop up their newly-won pot of money from poker.

We glamorize and glorify gambling. And for 95% of the people in the world, it can be a harmless vice, a night on the town — even a family trip to Vegas.

But for some, it’s a one-way ticket to a nightmare.

Pathological gamblers experience high rates of job loss, divorce, domestic violence, bankruptcy, stress-related illnesses, arrest and incarceration. Debt alone can seem overwhelming. Gamblers lost a stunning $119 billion in 2013. Various studies throughout the country estimate that U.S. problem gamblers rack up debts in excess of $40,000 each.

Compound these issues with the reality that many of the people afflicted with this addiction also suffer from other mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and 30% are “dual-addicted” to drugs, alcohol or other mind-altering pathologies.

To cope with this seemingly incessant string of connected issues and the constant crises they cause, gamblers resort to lying and theft. They frantically cover up and dissemble, exacerbating their already strained relationships with family and friends and escalating the possibility of consequences such as being fired or charged with a crime.

No wonder the prospect of death begins to seem like a welcome relief.

Now you understand why, at Maryhaven, our initial screening of pathological gamblers includes a thorough exploration of their attitudes and propensity for thoughts of suicide. It’s also why we try to help clients with support groups and therapy for their loved ones, in addition to one-on-one counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy.

There truly is one more chance for gamblers. It just doesn’t depend on the spin of a wheel or the outcome of a sport. Instead, a real chance rides on the willingness of the gambler and his or her family to see help, to face the current reality of their lives and to begin the hard but rewarding work of achieving abstinence and rebuilding their lives.

It starts by separating the harmful from the harmless.

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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