February 4, 2017 2:00 pm

Super Bowl weekend: A vulnerable time for gambling addicts

According to the American Gaming Association, Sunday's Super Bowl 51 games will generate $4.7 billion in illegal bets.

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This is a two-part series looking at the impact gambling and betting on competitive sporting events can have on people’s lives. 

The biggest sporting event of the year is just around the corner and is expected to rake in an estimated $4.7 billion in illegal sports bets, the American Gaming Association reports.

It’s also a time of year when gambling addicts, and even recovering addicts, are particularly vulnerable, Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Problem Institute of Ontario at CAMH, says.

“For people who are sports betters it can be a very triggering time just like any playoff time,” she says. “And for those people betting on sports makes it more exciting and adds another layer of excitement and if that’s what they’ve done for a long time – either problematically or unproblematically – it’s a huge connection they’ve made where Super Bowl time means ‘gambling time.’”

UCLA psychiatrist Timothy Fong points out that the day can seem more alluring than any other days because it’s been accepted by many as a cultural holiday.

“With so much attention drawn to the event, gambling becomes a natural part of the day and parties to keep the ‘action’ going,” he says in a Q&A on the UCLA website. “Gamblers see the Super Bowl as the final betting opportunity for the football season and seek to close out the betting season on a high note.”

Fong also notes that college and professional football is consistently the most popular sport to bet on in the United States. He says nearly 40 per cent of the total money wagered in Las Vegas sports books (where the betting is legal) is on football. This has been consistent for the last 20 years.

“Sports betting can lead to a gambling disorder just as quickly or intensely as table games, in part, because of the sheer number of betting opportunities that exist in casinos and online,” Fong says.

While there are no statistics on Canadian gambling habits surrounding the Super Bowl, a 2011 Statistics Canada report says government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals, casinos and slot machines garnered a net revenue of $13.74 billion in 2010.

What is a gambling disorder?

While many refer to it as a “gambling addiction,” the more appropriate term is “gambling disorder,” the American Psychiatric Association says. It is described as a compulsion that involves repeated problematic behaviour causing major problems or distress.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) adds problematic gambling can affect each individual differently, but may impact a person’s work or schooling, can cause mental or physical harm, destroy finances, damage reputations and impact relationships with family or friends. It can also lead to illegal activity.

“Over the years researchers have realized that an addictive gambling disorder has many similar components to substance use disorders,” says Pont. “Gambling has the highest suicide attempt rate of any of the addictions. And what makes gambling addiction different than the others is that it’s sometimes easier to hide.”

According to Georgia State University, pathological gamblers are five to 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than people in the general population.

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Among Gamblers Anonymous members, 12 to 18 per cent have attempted suicide, 45 to 49 per cent have made plans to kill themselves, 48 to 70 per cent have contemplated suicide and 80 per cent have said they “wanted to die,” the university reports.

There are five categories along a spectrum of gambling involvement that CAMH recognizes:

  1. No gambling: Some people never gamble.
  2. Casual social gambling: Most people gamble casually. This may include buying the occasional lottery ticket or occasionally visiting a casino for entertainment.
  3. Serious social gambling: People who play regularly and consider it their primary form of entertainment, but it doesn’t interfere with work or relationships.
  4. Harmful involvement: People who experience difficulties in their personal or work lives and social relationships.
  5. Pathological gambling: When gambling seriously harms every aspect of someone’s life. Those with a problem this severe are not able to control the urge to gamble, even if they’re aware it causes harm. Gambling in this case is often used to escape from problems and relieve anxiety.

There are several theories as to what may be the cause of developing a gambling addiction.

Pont says it’s possible it may be hereditary, while other research points to connection issues within a person’s brain (as a Stanford University study noted last year).

The signs and symptoms

There is a list of signs that may point to a possible gambling dependency. These signs may include behavioural and emotional changes and issues associated with health and finance, the CAMH website points out.

“When people have a gambling addiction they’ll notice they have an increased tolerance and need to gamble more in order to get the same effect as the other times,” Pont says. “They might be chasing their wins and losses, they might withdraw and feel irritable and other areas of their life like work and family may be impacted but they keep doing it despite the consequences.”

READ MORE: Youth new face of gambling addiction, data shows

Other signs listed by CAMH include:

  • Mood swings, depression and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Frequently borrows money or asks for salary advances
  • Has conflicts with people over money and/or has legal problems related to gambling
  • Is often late and/or is gone for long periods of time without explanation
  • Alternates between being broke and flashing money
  • Complains of headaches, stomach and/or bowel problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Over eating or loss of appetite

For a full list consult the CAMH page.

Where to get help

There are a lot of options available for gambling addicts seeking help, Pont says.

According to Pont, there are over 50 agencies that can help problem gamblers and their families free of cost in just Ontario alone. For example, the Problem Gambler’s Helping and Gamblers Anonymous.

Pont says it’s important for addicts to know that getting better will take time and effort; however the support provided is always there to help. It’s also important friends and family realize that gambling addiction is a real disorder.

“[A gambling dependency] can happen to anyone,” says Pont. “It’s like other addictions in that people can’t just stop and they often need support. It is a legitimate addiction. Help is out there.”

A list of groups and other resources available for problem gamblers and their family across Canada is available on the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario website.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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