By Jessica Schreindl
Money is won and lost each day at casinos around the country. But when does gambling become a problem?
Mark McDonald, a compulsive-gambling counselor at Ozark Center, 305 Virginia Ave., says all it takes is one time winning and a person could become addicted.
“Let’s say the first time you gamble you put in $20 and win $50,000. How many times do you think you would go back?” McDonald said.
There are a number of casinos or gambling locations within a 30-mile radius of Joplin. McDonald says there’s been an increase in problem gambling in the area because of easy access to casinos.
“It used to be the closest place people had to go to was in Kansas City on the river boats,” he said. “The availability of the casinos is going to cause its own criminal activity and damage to the community.”
Still, McDonald says it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the addiction begins.
“It’s on a continuum scale,” he said. “It’s not just a black-and-white sort of thing.”
Nora Bock, clinical director for the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse at the Missouri Department of Mental Health, says gambling becomes a problem when a person begins to experience “adverse consequences” as a direct result of gambling.
“Because of their preoccupation with gambling, they start to let other aspects of their lives suffer, like family, friends, career, school,” Bock said. “These things are ‘replaced’ by the person’s gambling.”
‘It gets them high’
Problem gambling doesn’t discriminate. McDonald says it crosses all social and racial lines. What problem gamblers have in common is the “high” they get from gambling. McDonald says it’s similar to the high an alcoholic or drug addict gets.
“The brain chemistry creates this euphoria,” McDonald said. “Lots of serotonin and dopamine are pushed as a result.”
Dr. Lia Nower, director of the Center of Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, says many problem gamblers report dissociating while playing.
“Feeling numb, outside their body, losing track of time, etc.,” Nower said. “It would be similar to a ‘buzz’ from alcohol without the motor impairment.”
McDonald says some of the people he sees get a high by just recalling their experience at a casino.
“When they talk about certain machines and certain lights, their eyes just light up,” he said. “For lack of a better term, just talking about it gets them high.”
Steps to addiction
Gambling problems range from minimal to severe, says McDonald.
There are four “steps” or levels by which a person becomes addicted.
In the first phase, gambling is treated as an occasional, recreational activity. From there, the gambling becomes more preoccupying and more frequent. The third phase is where gamblers experience some sort of “impact” in their lives, says McDonald. The impact could be financial, such as using household money to gamble, or social, such as arguing with a spouse. In the final phase, the gambling becomes an obsession. McDonald describes this phase as one of desperation.
“People can’t get it off their mind, the idea that ‘I’ve got to get this fixed,’” he said.
McDonald believes the problems casinos bring outweigh the benefits.
Melissa Stephens, problem gambling programs administrator for the Missouri Gaming Commission, says it’s not in the benefit of casinos to have problem gamblers.
“For one, sitting by a problem gambler who’s upset can upset the other patrons,” Stephens said. “And casinos would rather have your sustained patronage and long-term play than someone who spends a large amount of cash at one time.”
Help is available
Problem gamblers use the Voluntary Exclusion Program provided by the Missouri Gaming Commission. The program is a way for problem gamblers to acknowledge they have a problem and to take personal responsibility for it by agreeing to stop visiting casinos.
Help is also available by calling (888) BETSOFF to learn about free counseling services or Gamblers Anonymous meetings in the local area.
By Jessica Schreindl
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