Michigan copes with dramatic rise in problem gambling
Shelby Township resident Nicholas Tabarias’ entry into problem gambling began in 2014 when he moved in with an aunt who frequented the casino.
“She loved playing slots and went to the casino almost every day,” he says. “In the early stages, I would accompany her to the casino and watch her play, but eventually the sights, sounds, and the idea of winning big morphed… into a problem gamble.”
Tabarias went to the casino every day to play blackjack, Texas Hold’em and tournament poker. He also began showing up late for work or missing work altogether. He began gambling his paychecks, turned to payday loans, and eventually pawned his beloved musical instruments.
“I would lose all my money, get into debt and chase my losses by borrowing more,” he says. “It was a vicious circle that gradually destroyed my life.”
When he wasn’t at the casino, he would spend his time exploring strategies such as counting cards to improve his chances of winning.
“I thought a big win would solve all my problems, that I would be able to take care of myself and my family and life would be great,” says Tabarias. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I’ve definitely dug a very deep hole. I had to hit rock bottom and realize that I was powerless over gambling, that my life was beyond control and seek help.”
Tabaria’s first step on the road to recovery was an appeal Michigan problem gambling hotline. The help of Mike Moody, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with the Helpline, and a referral to Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings was just what Tabarias needed to overcome his addiction.
“I love the recovery meetings. You are welcomed with open arms. You’re in a judgment-free zone and you’re with others who have very similar stories,” Tabarias says. “It’s like a family unit. You can talk about what you’re struggling with. For me it really made a difference.”
Problem gambling hotline a safe bet
Tabarias is far from alone in his experience of problem gambling. His call to the Problem Gambling Hotline was one of 4,400 in 2021 – the first full year that online gambling was legal in Michigan. This number triples the calls received in 2020. While online gambling brought the state $20.5 million in tax receipts and other payments referrals for gambling treatment in January 2022 alone increased by 42% from 2020 to 2021. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation has left many Michiganians with idle time, stress and anxiety that reinforces a problem gambler’s urge to gamble.
“Online gambling led to increased gambling activity for those who were already engaged and going to the casinos and whatever their gambling activity of choice may have been,” said Alia Lucas, Michigan Gambling Disorder Treatment and Prevention Program Manager. “Moreover, gambling was introduced as an individual game. Add in the improved accessibility with online gambling and sports betting, now you make it even more available. It’s handy on your phone or computer. You don’t have to leave your home. This has definitely increased gambling activity.”
gambling disorder is classified as an addiction-related disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. Gambling addiction has the highest intentional suicide rate of all addictions. Problem gamblers commit suicide 15 times more often than the general public.
Signs of problem gambling involve dealing with how to get more gambling money; gambling with increasing amounts of money; unsuccessful attempt to restrict or stop gambling; feeling restless or irritable when trying to cut down; using gambling to escape from problems or to relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression; try to get lost money back by playing more; lying about gambling; jeopardy of relationships, school or job opportunities; and steal or borrow to replace lost money.
“Gambling is a hidden addiction. There really aren’t any physical signs that you can use to tell if someone is overwhelmed,” says Lucas. “It takes so much perseverance and tears such a hole in your life. Problem players often see no other way out.”
The hope of winning big clouds the players’ judgment even more. Lucas finds that people who win big on their first gambling experience are 30% more likely to have problem gambling.
“One thing that makes it difficult with this particular addiction is that the world recognizes gambling as a recreational activity,” says Lucas. “For many people it is normal in the household. I grew up with family members playing the lottery and I think nothing of it. Some family members may be hosting gambling parties, or you may be playing bingo at church. We often dismiss problem gambling as a lack of self-control without actually considering it as something beyond recreational gaming.”
State symposium expanded hotline work
To counter the rise of problem gambling, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hosted a virtual event Symposium on Gambling Disorders on March 3-4, 2022. The event brought hope to individuals struggling with problem gambling, those who have loved ones who are problem gamblers, and practitioners helping others with problem gambling. Gambling addiction experts talked to people who had gambling addictions. The symposium also addressed the increase in young people struggling with gaming problems due to online gaming.
Brianne Doura Schawohl.
“The game has changed and so have the problems,” says Brianne Doura-Schawohl, keynote speaker and executive director of the symposium Doura-Schawohl Consulting, a government relations and gambling consultancy. “With the proliferation of sports and online gaming, we are finding that helplines across the US are seeing an increase in calls for help, many of which young men are struggling with sports betting now that it has become much easier to access from your phone play and play from the comfort of your own home.”
Doura-Schawohl notes that online access has transformed gambling from an outing or event into a ubiquitous temptation. What was once a once-in-a-lifetime betting opportunity on a sporting event has become a series of real-time wagers throughout the duration of a game.
“When someone is struggling with a gambling addiction, it negatively affects eight to ten other people around them. It’s really a significant emotional and mental addiction,” says Doura-Schawohl. “The shame and stigma associated with gambling addiction is the worst of all addictions. A lot of people who struggle with this do so quietly.”
To further aggravate problem gambling, gamblers can place bets using credit cards and credit card-funded e-wallets. Other countries like that United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Germanyand Franceban credit cards and e-wallets and restrict gambling advertising.
“With legalization, aggressive marketing, promotions, and bonus offers that are often thrown at people encourage them to gamble more. People probably gamble if they never would, and it’s instant,” says Doura-Schawohl. “We’re bringing a whole new customer base with this wave and people are getting into gambling for the first time ever. Many of them are young and don’t understand the risks that come with gambling.”
While the new generation of problem gamblers tend to be young, white, well educated and male, problem gambling is not discriminated against. It is no longer reserved for certain population groups. And its reach goes beyond financial ruin.
“Gambling involves risk, just like that sip of alcohol,” says Doura-Schawohl. “Gaming disorders ruin lives. But there’s no reason anyone has to fight in silence. There is help. There is hope. And there are people out there who want to help.”
Tabarias has found his way to hope on the other side of problem gambling. He hasn’t gambled in a year and he finds helping newcomers in his GA group to abstain from gambling helps him.
“They also remind me of what I went through. The program has helped me change the way I think and live,” says Tabarias. “I was able to pay my debts. I show up for work on time.”
He has also rediscovered his love for music after releasing an album and playing shows with his father.
“It’s such a contrast,” says Tabarias.
To reach the Michigan Problem Gambling Hotline, call (800) 270-7117.
As a freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker’s favorite subjects are social justice, wellness and the arts. She is the development news editor at Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her greatest achievement is her five amazing grown children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Nicholas Tabaria’s photos by Nick Hagen.