A problem gambling primer

Lake County Prevention

Problem gambling is not harmless recreation. While most people in Lake County can play a card game, use an app, or visit a casino for fun occasionally, for problem gamblers, these seemingly harmless recreations represent activities in their lives that have become unmanageable.

We are coming to the end of Problem Gambling Month in Oregon, as declared by Gov. Kate Brown. You may have noticed more ads popping up on your local television stations working to raise awareness and let people know that in our state, problem gamblers can get free help. You may ask yourself, but doesn’t Oregon have a lottery? Why are they promoting gambling and then saying it is a problem at the same time? If it was such a problem, why did they legalize the lottery? They did it because we, the voters, voted to legalize it, but, recognizing that for some people it would raise the risk of problems, funds from the lottery were set aside for problem gambling prevention and treatment services. Casinos, which in Oregon are on land belonging to sovereign nations, operate under separate requirements.

But is problem gambling really a problem? It is for those who struggle with it. Take a map and overlay statistics on poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and high health risks, and you will have identified the areas where the population is most susceptible to problem gambling.

There is another statistic that correlates strongly to problem gambling, and that is substance abuse, particularly alcohol. This correlation between problem gambling and alcohol abuse is four to five times the rate of the general population.     

Problem gamblers include anyone no longer able to control the resources they spend on gambling, including time, money, and focus. Problem gamblers are more likely to smoke, use caffeine excessively, be obese, and have higher rates of emergency room visits, but they come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and economic ranges.

The diagnostic criteria for identification as a problem gambler includes 10 categories. I have paraphrased from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

  1. They are preoccupied with gambling. They are going to tell stories of their “wins” over and over, because in the retelling, their brains are reliving that high. They are always thinking and planning how to get money to gamble.
  2. They have a need to gamble more money to get the same desired euphoric feeling.
  3. They have tried but are unable to cut back, control, or stop.
  4. They become restless and irritable when they try to stop.
  5. They gamble to escape and relieve moods such as depression, hopelessness, or helplessness.
  6. They return to gamble again quickly after a loss, trying to “break even.”
  7. They lie to conceal their gambling.
  8. They commit illegal acts to get money to gamble.
  9. They are willing to jeopardize relationships to gamble.
  10. They rely on other people to get them money to gamble.

Problem gamblers may gamble away the rent money, the grocery money, even other people’s money, and that is why we, as a society, should care. Children, spouses, co-workers, and companies can suffer great losses. It is more common than you think, and with easy access due to the mini computers so many of us carry — our smartphones — it is on the rise.

Fifty years ago, it was common for people to think alcoholics just needed more willpower to stop drinking. Now alcoholism is recognized as a disease, and there is an understanding that some people are predisposed to it, and therefore more vulnerable. We know the risk factors for alcoholism: early use, role models who use it, a culture where it is considered normal and accepted, difficulty coping, a need to self-medicate, hopelessness, and helplessness. Those are the same factors that put people at risk for problem gambling.

If you or someone in your organization is interested in having a gambling policy for the workplace, there is help. Call me at Lake Health District’s Prevention Department at (541) 947-2114 ext. 441. Prevention has an easy template that can make this important step painless.

If you know someone who needs help, call the Oregon hotline at 1-877-MY LIMIT or visit Oregon Problem Gambling Services online.