What if you didn’t have to choose between life and gambling? What if, after one night of drinking with friends, your nagging conscience wouldn’t send you home to erase the debt? Would that make your behavior stop?
That’s the idea behind so-called gamblers Anonymous. Thousands of people have attended the Manhattan-based meetings since 1980, driven by a common desire: to stop or reduce the long-term and compulsive gambling behavior that many say they developed after leaving home for the first time and becoming drawn into a world of the exotic and unknown.
“I couldn’t stop myself. Debbie, a 54-year-old resident of Brooklyn, New York, who is hooked to slot machines, says, “I was either purchasing lottery tickets or a trip to Las Vegas—every time”. She says she lost everything—her family, her home, her job, and her fiancé—and spent years trying to quit. Debbie does not want her full name published because she is afraid of being shunned or facing more criminal charges as a result of her gambling problem.
According to a survey commissioned by the American Gambling Association, about 10 percent of adults reported that they had a gambling problem in 2017—the most recent year for which statistics were available—in the U.S. The number of problem gamblers is probably higher, though, because the survey, which was conducted in 2015, asks people who haven’t been to a gambling facility in the past year.
Nearly three-fourths of those who have a problem with gambling said it began after age 18, and more than half said that it was a problem only in the past five years, the survey shows. More than half reported that they thought they had a problem.
About a third of people who have a problem gambling (or have gambling problem) first experienced it before turning 18, according to the survey. And almost a quarter of people in that age group reported that they were first attracted to gambling by finding out what it would be like to gamble.
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Perrotta has organized more than 5,000 Gambling Anonymous meetings since 1989. Some people use a slot machine as a type of self-imposed therapy, while others get a thrill from gambling for the chance to win more than $5,000, he says.
“It’s a little bit of excitement and a little bit of desperation all rolled into one.” he says. “They need the thrill. They need to do something to fix the problem. It’s a perfect storm of addiction.”
While trying to control gambling, addicts will often take out a second mortgage or borrow money from family or friends, Perrotta says. But unlike financial problems such as debt that can often be reduced by budgeting and by paying off debt in installments, gambling problems typically go on forever, he says.
He describes addicts as being in a constant war with themselves.
“You get up in the morning, and you can’t decide if you’re going to go play a slot machine or go to the bingo hall,” he says.
According to the researchers, 19 percent of 51 people with gambling problems in New Zealand continued to gamble after being referred to treatment programmes in 2016.
It’s not possible to measure the size of the problem in the U.S. because it’s such a stigmatized and secretive disorder. The American Psychiatric Association defines gambling addiction as a “behavioral disorder in which someone has a persistent and recurrent desire to gamble or a compulsion to gamble.”
Gambling addiction has always been stigmatized in the U.S. The only way to get it recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association is to see a professional—a psychiatrist or psychologist—and report that you have a problem with gambling.
Going to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting was once thought to be a show of weakness. The reality is that some forms of gambling may actually help people manage their money better.
“Ironically, a lot of the gambling is helpful for money management,” Perrotta says.
For instance, he says, lottery players who correctly guess the winning number or slot players who rack up a big win can use the winnings to pay off debt.
Some people use the money they win at the slot machines to travel or save for a goal, such as a wedding. The reality is that many gamblers use their winnings to pay off debt or pay for expenses that they should have paid off already, but were unable to. Some gamblers continue gambling to a point where it becomes too expensive to continue, he says.
In New Zealand, there are 6,000 Gamblers Anonymous meetings each year. New Zealand had an estimated 2,000 problem gamblers in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
Australia also has a well-established Gamblers Anonymous program. Approximately 5 percent of Australians identified themselves as problem gamblers in a 2013 survey, which was conducted by the online support group GamCare.
Problem gamblers are expected to be even more prevalent in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association, 46% of persons have been compulsive gamblers at some point in their lives.
Efforts to treat addiction to gambling and other substances have increasingly included efforts to develop and share evidence-based practices among therapists, addiction specialists, and psychologists.
For instance, the American Psychological Association recently formed a consortium of 12 major national professional associations to develop and disseminate evidence-based treatment guidelines for addiction.
Researchers are also developing targeted, computer-based interventions that can be used in outpatient settings. The U.S. Department of Defense is using computer-based cognitive-behavioral therapy for military personnel who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
On the other hand, policymakers and members of the public also play an important role in promoting or discouraging gambling.
Perrotta, who also works with drug addicts, says that policymakers have had an impact on addiction, particularly in states where medical marijuana is legal.
“You have a lot of people who’ve never even considered a glass of wine, let alone a joint, who now feel free to just smoke a little pot every day. And it doesn’t look like it’s hurting them, but what it does is it changes their mood.”
He says that people who are addicted to marijuana may be particularly vulnerable to a problem with gambling.
He believes that, while increased availability may be the most visible evidence of gambling, he can’t overlook the powerful psychological effects of gambling itself.
“I have to conclude that it may be as powerful and probably more so.”