Gambling: Addiction Is Easy to Hide

Expert dreads when online mobile gambling will be legal in New York by the end of 2021

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Gambling is a profitable industry. In 2018 alone, Americans spent $306.5 billion just online and $161.24 billion through poker, casinos, sports betting, horseracing, lottery, daily fantasy sports (DFS) and bingo, according to industry website www.casino.org.

It’s likely those numbers may shift in an unexpected way once numbers are available for 2020.

For some, it may seem a harmless pastime. For others, gambling takes over.

People described as “pathologic gamblers” by Jim Maney, executive director of New York Council on Problem Gambling in Albany, just don’t stop, even when they know they will face extremely negative consequences.

“Alcoholics want to keep drinking; gamblers want to keep gambling,” he said.

For Maney, “it’s not just about the winning. The risk is the excitement piece. The finances are how they keep score.”

Also, like alcohol addiction, gambling addiction begins with social involvement. It evolves from there.

“When they cross over, they start having problems,” Maney said.

These could include having little time left for family, lying about missing money, obsessively following sporting events upon which they’re wagering, and significant financial loss.

“They have to decide if they’re going to continue, go back to social gambling or continue as a problem gambler. Then they become a compulsive gambler. They can’t stop. We want people to stay non-gamblers.”

Maney said that multiple factors related to the pandemic could both positively and negatively affect gambling.

Some have experienced downtime from work, which could mean more time to gamble, and financial stress which may lead to more or to less gambling. While the casinos were closed, people may have turned to online gambling, which is always available.

“For seniors, they probably slowed their gambling because there’s no buses going to the casinos or other establishments,” Maney said. “Anxiety and depression triggers things differently in different people. We’ve seen cases of people able to control it more or others unable to control it.”

He dreads when online mobile gambling will be legal in New York by the end of 2021.

“Anytime there’s more expansion or availability, there will be more problems,” he said.

The pandemic has helped more people gain access to treatment from counselors through remote sessions. For people who feel stigma about receiving help, Maney said that it is easier receiving treatment from home via the internet.

Maney said that people from all demographics and economic levels can become compulsive gamblers.

Jeff Footer, clinical services manager of the Restart Substance Abuse Program at Catholic Family Center in Rochester, said that people with substance abuse disorders may switch to gambling.

“It’s triggering the same part of their brain as a substance,” Footer said. “It gives them a high. It’s not just winning the money. It’s the winning. They have won $2,000 but they spend $8,000. It’s as devastating as any other addiction but easier to hide until they’re evicted. That’s when their family finds out.”

Some can hide for years

Recognizing the need for treatment represents a big barrier to receiving care. Gambling addiction is much easier to hide and difficult to admit because it does not directly cause car accidents or overdoses. Those addicted to gambling can still function well for the most part; however, as the addiction progresses, their lives begin to fall apart.

“The denial is so much higher,” Footer said. “Some can hide it for years. They look good and still have a job. The stress gets overwhelming and the suicide rate is so high.”

Treating gambling addiction is much like treating substance abuse.

Sara Hopkins, licensed clinical social worker and director of outpatient adult mental health services for Rochester Regional Health Behavioral Health, said that gamblers can help to receive assistance from a trusted person, a self-help group or a professional who understands addiction and compulsive behavior.

“That can help a person recover and make desired changes in their lives,” she said. “Becoming knowledgeable about problem gambling is an important step in making changes and long-term recovery.”

Support groups may take a 12-step approach, like that of substance abuse support groups. A therapist may also help their patients develop coping skills to better ways to deal with anxiety and the urge to gamble, along with creating short-term and long-term goals.    

Those seeking help may call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).