Gambling addiction is not about the money, but about escaping difficult and negative feelings.
That is according to a new survey by an assistant professor and program coordinator at North Dakota State University at Fargo.
Lisa Vig, who is the director of Lutheran Social Services’ Gamblers Choice treatment program, said that this analysis verifies what Lutheran Social Services has observed during 25 years of treating compulsive gamblers.
“Although many gamblers are motivated early on by winning money, the addiction is really about escaping negative feelings and difficult life experiences,” said Vig, in a release.
Lutheran Social Services gambling counselor Dawn Cronin has worked in this field for 19 years.
People who call to seek treatment will talk about the rush or the excitement that goes with gambling, she said. These are risk-takers, people who live on the edge, and the risk of gambling feels desirable, she said.
Others are seeking to numb out, looking for escape from the difficulties in their lives, Cronin said.
The new survey is called “North Dakota Problem Gamblers Characteristics, 2006-2012,” and was recently completed by WooMi Phillips, Ph.D., of NDSU.
Phillips’ survey also discovered that 29 percent of the 136 problem gamblers surveyed also had sought treatment for other addictions before seeking help for gambling. Many problem gamblers who enter the Lutheran Social Services Gamblers Choice program report they have already “conquered” another addiction, only to move on to develop a gambling addiction problem, Vig said.
Normally, gamblers who come into Lutheran Social Services are pretty evenly divided between men and women, Cronin said. The most common ages for those seeking help are between 40 and 55, she said.
“The female gambler often starts later in life,” she said. Middle age can bring stressors such as an empty nest, the grief of losing someone, or marriage problems. Women also get into trouble with gambling quicker than men, but seek help sooner, she said.
“Males often start gambling earlier in life (and) gamble longer,” Cronin said. “It’s a progressive disease for those who are addicted.”
At middle age, men have often reached their max-out point in terms of credit, she said; “once the money runs out ... something needs to change.”
Lutheran Social Services sees a fairly even split among gamblers who prefer casino games, such as slots, and charitable gambling like pulltabs or blackjack, she said.
And even once people stop spending money on gambling, “until they get strong and develop better coping mechanisms, (compulsive) shopping is something gamblers have to watch out for,” Cronin said.
Cronin said that most clients call for help after trying on their own to control their gambling by gambling less frequently or limiting the amount of money they will take. Once they call, they are encouraged to come in for an assessment and get information about the outpatient gambling treatment program.
The group sessions meet three hours a night, two nights a week, and most clients attend a minimum of six months, Cronin said. Working through the 12 step program similar to other addiction recovery programs, clients do a lot of learning about the addiction, she said.
“We know a lot more about drug and alcohol abuse. Gambling is a little more hidden,” Cronin said.
While in treatment, clients are encourage to attend Gamblers Anonymous support group sessions, as well, she said.
While insurance companies rarely cover treatment for compulsive gambling, a contract through the Department of Human Services helps pay for scholarships or subsidies, Cronin said. The casinos in the state also make voluntary contributions to a treatment fund, she said.
“That’s really nice for our clients at the beginning,” Cronin said. “Most come with financial issues (so) the first month or two is covered for them. They can focus on getting caught up on rent, mortgages, insurance, those are critical.”
Further along, they can re-evaluate what they can afford to pay, she said.
“We in North Dakota have the belief that people will not be turned away for lack of funds.”
Other results from the survey:
- 84 percent of the 136 compulsive gamblers surveyed had lied to family members, friends or others in order to hide their gambling;
- 81 percent experienced preoccupation with gambling;
- 77 percent believed their gambling was a way to escape personal problems or relieve uncomfortable emotions;
- 76 percent had unsuccessfully tried to cut down or stop gambling;
- 71 percent had relied on others to pay gambling debts or pay their bills due to financial problems caused by gambling; and
- 51 percent had committed illegal acts such as writing bad checks, theft, forgery, embezzlement or fraud to finance their gambling habit.
Gamblers Choice services are available at Lutheran Social Services offices in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot and Williston. The 32-week program serves about 150 problem gamblers and their families each year.
For more information, call 877-702-7848 or visit www.lssnd.org/gamblerschoice.