THE HIDDEN ADDICTION
Many people mark the beginning of Spring by rallying support for their favorite basketball team, commonly known as March Madness. Coincidently, the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) noticed a trend occurring every March as an unusually high volume of calls would come in on the national helpline for problem gamblers. These individuals were seeking help after experiencing big losses around bets placed on the March Madness games. It seemed fitting to designate March as Problem Gambling Awareness Month. During the month the NCPG aims to increase public awareness of problem gambling. Healthcare providers are encouraged to screen clients for problem gambling and the council disseminates information about the availability of prevention, treatment and recovery services.
Gambling has a long history with the earliest evidence from 2300BC in Ancient China. Historians have found tiles which were likely used in a game of chance, similar to what we know today as the lottery (www.gambling.net/history). Throughout time, gambling in many forms, has been a part of society and has even assisted in the financing of public institutions. Acceptance of gambling in our current society has only widened with technology and the legalization of many forms of gambling. Accessibility continues to grow with 48 states having some form of legalized gambling available. Our own New Jersey legalized sports betting in June 2018, adding to the many gambling options in which NJ residents and visitors can partake.
Not surprisingly this increased accessibility has created more opportunity for a hidden addiction to grow.
· 80% of the population have gambled in their lifetime
· 6 million Americans now suffer from problem gambling
· the average gambling debt is $45,000 dollars.
Unlike other addictions, problem gamblers do not show physical signs. There are no marks on their arms, no dilated pupils, and no noticeably impaired physical behavior. But the compulsive behavior of gambling creates other symptoms including depression, anxiety, and at times suicidal thoughts. Individuals suffering from problem gambling often are neglectful to their family and friends, incur large debts, and may be involved in illegal activity to fund their gambling addiction. These symptoms and collateral damage cost society around 7 billion dollars annually.
The nature of this addiction allows it to go hidden. The widespread acceptance of gambling in our culture, diagnosis and treatment are also overlooked. However, the pathology associated with gambling was recognized early on by the behavioral health field. The American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) added Pathological Gambling as a diagnosis in 1980, and at that time, it was considered an impulse control disorder. The most recent DSM 5 edition moved gambling under the “Addiction and Related Disorders.” A growing body of scientific literature and neuroscience research has built a strong case for gambling to be reassigned as an addiction. Studies have shown that gambling activates the same part of the brain which operates the same reward system that we also see in drug use. (National Center for Responsible Gaming White Paper, 2013.) In addition, the DSM 5 changed the name from Pathological Gambling to Gambling Disorder, removing the pejorative association with the word pathological which had hitherto reinforced the stigma associated with problem gambling.
Most individuals placing bets on the March Madness games are engaging in entertainment and competitive fun with friends, but for those who meet the criteria for a Gambling Disorder, or who are predisposed to this disorder, this month can be triggering and dangerous. This is the first time NJ residents can legally place bets in the casinos and on-line for the March Madness games. Easy access to gambling can cause some individuals to get caught up in the excitement. Unfortunately, their behavior resembles a serious struggle with an addiction, leaving the days of entertainment far behind. It is important to know that there is help, hope and resources available. The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey provides a 24/7 confidential hotline: 1800-Gambler. This hotline provides support, resources and can connect an individual to treatment providers. The 12-step program Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is another source of support. GA meetings can be found at www.gamblersanonymous.org The hidden addiction of gambling is very hard to see, and the shame associated with asking for help often times prevents individuals from seeking treatment. During this triggering time, it is important to know the facts and resources available and promote hope and recovery to those suffering hidden in the shadows of a gambling disorder.