One day many years ago, my then 12 year old son and his 11 year old buddy came into my living room with bracket pages all set for that year’s March madness tournament.  For those unfamiliar with this annual event,   each March college basketball teams compete in a tournament to determine the best team in the country. Many people fill out bracket sheets in which they make their predictions of who will win each stage of the tournament and finally who will be the overall winner. A great deal of betting takes place based on these predictions. My son’s buddy was taking small bets on that year’s tournament.

As I recall, I thought it was funny that my son and his friend were doing this, and I placed a small bet. It seemed innocent enough and the kids were pretty excited about the whole thing.

How would I have responded differently had they come into the house with a case of beer they were enjoying and offered me one? I would have been shocked and very concerned to say the least! I surely would not have joined in on the “fun”.

We are all aware of the health risks of underage drug and alcohol use. What many of us are not aware of is the risk gambling poses to millions of youth and adults.

March is problem gambling awareness month and I would like to bring readers attention to this issue.

For many people, gambling has the same destructive effect in the brain and in people’s lives as drugs and alcohol. It is estimated that 4% of the US population experiences problem or pathological gambling. In the Capital Region approximately 34,000 people are struggling with the destructive impact of problem gambling in their lives. Include family members, co-workers, and friends who are negatively impacted and the number can easily pass 100,000.

Sadly, very few seek treatment. When they do the condition has typically progressed to the point at which serious consequences have already occurred.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, the disorder can be defined as all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits. Symptoms of the disorder include increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing” losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting serious negative consequences. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.

Although no substance is ingested, the problem gambler gets the same effect from gambling as someone else might get from taking a tranquilizer or having a drink. The gambling alters the person’s mood and the gambler keeps repeating the behavior attempting to achieve that same effect. But just as tolerance develops to drugs or alcohol, the gambler finds that it takes more and more of the gambling experience to achieve the same emotional effect as before. This creates an increased craving for the activity and the gambler finds they have less and less ability to resist as the craving grows in intensity and frequency.

The New York Council on Problem Gambling lists the following warning signs that might indicate that you or a loved one is having or beginning to have problems with gambling:

  • Are you or a loved one haunted by bill collectors?
  • Do you or a loved one gamble to escape worry, boredom, or trouble?
  • Do thoughts of gambling disrupt your sleep?
  • Do you or a loved one ever gamble longer than originally planned?
  • Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations cause you or a loved one to gamble?
  • Do you or a loved on celebrate good times with gambling?
  • Have you ever had self-destructive thoughts because of problems resulting from gambling?
  • Have you or a loved one lost time from work or school due to gambling?
  • Do you hide the rent/mortgage or food money because your spouse, partner or other family member gambles it away?
  • Do you or a loved one borrow money to finance gambling or to pay back gambling debts?
  • Does your spouse, partner or other loved one promise faithfully that she or he will stop gambling, yet continues to gamble?
  • Have you noticed a personality change in a loved one as his or her gambling has progressed?
  • Is your spouse, partner or loved one away from home or unavailable to the family for long periods of time due to gambling?

The Center for Problem Gambling in Albany, NY has been providing professional treatment for problem gambling for over 20 years. The Center serves problem gamblers and their loved ones from the Capital Region and beyond. Over the past year the population served has nearly doubled following the expansion of casino gambling in the region. Those seeking help for themselves or a loved one in the Capital Region can contact the Center for Problem Gambling in Albany at 518-462-6531.

The New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services also operates the HOPEline at 1-877-8-HOPENY offering help and hope 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for alcoholism, drug abuse and problem gambling.

A number of mutual support organizations also support those seeking recovery including Gamblers Anonymous, smart recovery, and others.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, please know that help is available and recovery is possible.

Phil Rainer, LCSW-R