Just like the namesake of the famous country-western song, the stereotypical problem gambler is a drifter, an older man down on his luck and closing in on the final years of his life.
But there is a new generation of problem gamblers out there who don’t fit this tired stereotype, a group of college-age men and women who, after growing up surrounded by easy access to online gaming, local casinos and popular betting games like basketball brackets and fantasy football, are at risk for developing a serious gambling addiction.
This month, the Minnesota Department of Human Services launched Just Ask MN, a new public awareness campaign designed to reach the nearly 6 percent of college students who have a serious gambling problem.
Older adults still make up the largest percentage of problem gamblers in the state. For years, DHS has run “No Judgment,” a public awareness campaign focused on that age group. The campaign includes the website getgamblinghelp.com, offering resources for individuals and families affected by problem gambling. There is also 1-800-333-HOPE, a free state-run gambling information and referral service line.
“For some time, we’ve had an ongoing awareness campaign focused on the adult population,” explained DHS Assistant Commissioner Claire Wilson, “but when we started seeing this rise in gambling addiction among young people in the state, we decided we needed to target this age group in a way that appealed to them.”
The new campaign features the youth-focused website justaskmn.org, which offers information about problem gambling, advice for identifying addictive gambling behaviors, tips for speaking to friends about gambling addiction and an self-assessment survey to help determine if you or a friend is exhibiting problem gambling behaviors. The campaign is being promoted in sports arenas, at gas stations in top casino areas, at college-area bars and on the online music-streaming site Pandora.
“We hosted several focus groups to find out which methods of information distribution would be most affective to meet this target audience,” Wilson said. “We’re advertising in a number of areas, but we also decided to do more digital outreach because this is what our focus groups said they’d be most attracted to.”
Information culled from the focus groups was detailed in the 2017 DHS report “Problem Gambling: A Report on the State’s Progress in Addressing the Problem of Compulsive Gambling and on the Percentage of Gambling Revenues that Come From Problem Gamblers” [PDF]
The report noted that focus group participants, ages 18-24, agreed that “a helpline or website, equipped with a chat feature, would be effective tools for individuals their age. Text alerts, detailing problem gambling, were also deemed a viable option.”
How addiction starts
John Von Eschen knows more than most about how gambling addiction can start at a young age. These days he’s a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified state therapy provider for people with gambling addiction, but he spent a big part of his first three decades addicted to games of chance.
“I stared gambling when I was 8,” Von Eschen said, “I played lotto and cards with my family. It was just part of our life. It was a lifestyle that people accepted in the ‘70s.”
What felt like a harmless family tradition morphed into dependence as Von Eschen used gambling as a way to feel better about himself and cope with his chemical addictions.
“Gambling gave me a sense of purpose and self-esteem,” he said. “It helped me think I could deal with the struggles in my life.”
While he acknowledged his alcoholism, Von Eschen didn’t think that his compulsion to gamble was a serious issue. “I’d identified that alcohol was a problem, but I looked at gambling as a thing that I did for fun,” he said. “I was just playing a game.”
Von Eschen didn’t get help for his gambling addiction until he was in his mid 30s, when, he said, “it greatly interfered with my marriage.”
Gambling and betting games were a regular part of Von Eschen’s childhood, and he thinks that set him up for his own addiction. Young people today run the same risk, he believes, simply because the omnipresence of online gaming leads them to think that gambling is just a fun activity that never leads to addiction.
“Young people have been exposed to all sorts of technological games that cross that line into gambling. Even playing games where you don’t win money but you have to buy credits to move on in the game is on the edge of gambling. I’ve worked with people who are spending a lot of time and money playing a video game that is technically not gambling but it has the same rush to it, the same chase.”
And then there’s always the option of nearby casinos, where it is legal for young people to gamble when they turn 18.
“A lot of kids talk about going out to the casino,” Von Eschen said. “It’s a rite of passage, the next step in possibly developing an addiction that can linger in the background for years.”
Not everyone who goes to a casino is a problem gambler, of course, but Von Eschen said that because our culture tends to downplay the seriousness of gambling addiction, many people who do exhibit addictive behaviors a young age tend to dismiss the problem as a normal part young adulthood.
“For a lot of kids, gambling has been a regular part of their life,” Von Eschen said. “It’s not taken as seriously as an addiction to alcohol or drugs. I’ve worked young people in the 18- to 25-year-old range. At that age they may have already developed problem gambling behaviors, but because they’re young and unattached, the issue hasn’t impacted their lives so severely that they’ve actually tried to quit. They may say that it’s not such a big deal, but if this behavior continues for a few years, it will become a big deal.”
More than money
Problem gambling doesn’t just affect a person’s bank account. Wilson said that the addiction carries with it several co-occurring disorders.
“The public perception is that gambling has an economic impact, but we know that it really goes far beyond that,” Wilson said. “Seventy percent of people with gambling disorders also have problems with alcohol. Over half of them smoke. Gambling has a negative impact on a person’s social life, their relationships with friends and family. Problem gambling leads to isolation. It preoccupies your daily life. For college students, it impacts their ability to be present for their school life, to hold down a job, to graduate. There can also be criminal activity associated with problem gambling when you are looking for a way to fuel your addiction.”
And gambling addiction also has another deadly side effect, Wilson added: “The rate of suicide among people who experience problem gambling is twice that any other addiction.”
So how can you tell if you or a loved one’s gambling behavior has drifted into addiction? Wilson said the line is crossed when the behavior becomes a compulsion.
“If you go into the casino on Saturday night and gamble a little bit and have a few drinks, that’s not problem gambling,” Wilson said. “But if you are unable to stop that activity once it starts, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
The Just Ask website details signs of problem gambling, which include, Wilson said, “gambling longer than planned, gambling until the last dollar is gone, having thoughts of gambling preoccupying your daily life until it impacts your job, your relationships, making attempts to stop gambling that are unsuccessful.”
Von Eschen said that he believes that any campaign that can educate young people about gambling addiction is worthwhile. The site has just been launched, and DHS reported that in February, it had some 1,300 visitors.
“With addiction, each case is going to be unique,” he said, “but most young people have this feeling of immortality, that nothing bad can happen to them, so they don’t always stop harmful behaviors. If they have an opportunity to see how their behavior may be hurting them down the road, maybe some young people will think twice about their problem gambling and make a change. That’s the best we can hope for.”