March’s Other Madness – Compulsive Gambling

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, March 16, 2016
By Courtney Pastner, RMFTI

Credit for this article goes to the person I interviewed who is in Gamblers Anonymous and would like to stay anonymous.

We are in the midst of what is undeniably one of the most exciting times of year for any college basketball fan…arguably, any true sports fan. The top 68 teams in the country, divided into four regions, playing what will certainly be some of the most competitive basketball we’ve seen all season.

It’s the NCAA Tournament….it’s “March Madness”! And in a year filled with so much parity, it’s anyone’s game.

But beyond the rivalries, the upsets, and the “bracketology,” there’s another game going on. It’s a different type of madness. In fact, it’s an illness that currently affects millions of people each year.

It’s compulsive gambling.

You may (or may not) be surprised to hear that the single largest wagering event in the U.S., after the Super Bowl, is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. In fact, in his column, John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, stated that “March Madness generates approximately $2.5 billion in illegal gambling,” according to the FBI. The American Gaming Association estimates it can even be as high as three times that figure.

How many fans are more concerned with the bet they have on the game as opposed to the actual outcome of their team and the pureness of the sport.

Let me start by saying that I am not writing this article against any casino, pool, betting bracket or game room. No, this is about an explosion of one of the most insidious, baffling, compulsive addictions in society today-pathological or compulsive gambling.

With an estimated five million compulsive (or pathological) gamblers in the U.S. and an estimated 15 million at-risk problem gamblers (according to a National Gambling Impact Study), it is a disease that has in some way impacted many of us – whether it was a friend, a spouse, a relative or even ourselves.

And the numbers are skyrocketing for youth, age 12-18, with more than 1.1 million adolescents who are compulsive gamblers. According to National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), sports betting is the most popular form of gambling among male youths, age 14–22, with nearly a quarter of males betting on sports in an average month.

The National Center For Responsible Gaming states “that 6 percent of college students in the U.S. have a serious gambling problem. They have created a web site to help university administrators, campus health professionals, students, and parents to better address gambling-related harms on campus.

Gambling today is woven into the fabric of our society. Yet, most families feel it is harmless to expose their children to betting on games. In fact, it is encouraged today with the publication of point spreads in daily papers, and it seems that sports betting is socially acceptable.

But recent research suggests that the earlier a person begins to gamble, the more likely he or she is to become a pathological gambler. And once a person crosses the line into irresponsible, uncontrolled gambling, he or she never seems to regain control – and that line can be pretty hazy, if not invisible.

This illness is not prejudice to race, gender, age or even status. Every day I see or speak with young students, family physicians, teachers, athletes, businessmen, nurses and those from all walks of life who have become addicted to gambling and find themselves in an isolated desperate situation losing all hope.

Compulsive Gamblers picture themselves leading a pleasant, gracious life, made possible by the huge sums of money they will accrue from their “system”. They live in a dream world creating images of the great and wonderful things they are going to do as soon as they make the big win.

It may seem like a game, but in a lot of cases, it’s far from fun. 

Elizabeth Karter, a therapist specializing in gambling addiction states “gambling is every bit as serious in its presenting issues as dependency on drugs and alcohol and frequently in its long term consequences include colossal levels of debt, lack of understanding from family and friends of its motivation, and is much harder to recover from.”

During 2014, 54% of admitted clients to the Nevada Problem Gambling Center stated that during the six months prior to entering treatment they considered or attempted suicide. As a matter of fact, the National Gambling Impact Study stated that approximately one in five pathological gamblers attempts suicide. They further note that the suicide rate among pathological gamblers is higher than for any other addictive disorder-including drugs and alcohol. Very little is known about the treatment and destruction of this debilitating illness and most feel they just had a run of bad luck.

The idea that somehow, someday they will be able to control their gambling is a great obsession of the pathological gambler. The persistence of this illusion is eye-opening. Many pursue it to prison or death.

Today “Gambling Disorders” are medically viewed as growing from the same neurological and biogenetic roots as alcohol and drug addiction.

The NCAA and many institutions have taken a position against gambling by implementing rules and policies that “prohibit student-athletes and athletic department, conference office, and NCAA national office employees from wagering on intercollegiate, amateur, and professional sports in which the Association conducts championships.”

But unfortunately, there are many athletes, coaches, administrators, professors, etc., who may be trapped in the spiraling world of compulsive gambling, and no amount of rules set forth will stop them from placing a bet. Why? Because they have lost the ability to control their gambling.

So what can we do?

We must start the education process early with families and with athletes at a young age. Let those with the problem know they are not bad people; rather, they are afflicted with an illness that can be stopped. Let those who need help know that there is help available. There are many signs to point to if a family member or student athlete has a gambling problem, but I’m out of space here to write them all out.

Here are 12 questions to ask if someone you know may have a gambling problem or the start of a problem:

1. Did you ever lose time from school or work due to gambling?

2. Have you ever felt guilt or shame after gambling?

3. After losing do you feel you must return and win back your losses?

4. After a win do you have a strong urge to return and win more?

5. Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone?

6. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?

7. Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?

8. Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?

9. Has gambling made your home life unhappy?

10. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?

11. Have you gambled to get money to meet your financial obligations?

12. Have you made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling?