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Report: Problem gambling grew during pandemic; Nevada makes efforts to help

Vegas Casino
AP Photo/John Locher, File
FILE - People play craps while wearing masks and between plexiglas partitions as a precaution against the coronavirus at the opening night of the Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas in Las Vegas on March 25, 2021.

It’s Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and yes, it’s the time of March Madness — the NCAA basketball tournament — when many, many people make sports bets in office pools or online.

But we’re also talking about this because there are some indications that during the pandemic, problem gambling grew.

Three months ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that a national phone line for people needing help with gambling addiction grew by about 30%, to 22,000 calls per month in 2021, from 17,000 in 2019.

In Nevada, it’s estimated that 6% of adults, or about 140,000 people, deal with problem gambling to some degree.

At the same time, sports betting is growing rapidly as states around the country begin to legalize it. A year ago, during the NCAA basketball tournament, $501 million were bet in Nevada.

Nationwide, about $3 billion will be gambled on the games this year.

Nevada has made efforts. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas studies problem gambling, and there are state programs to help people, though with funding that allows it to help only a few hundred people each year.

"During the month of March, we try to up all of our outreach efforts to our various partners, which might include treatment facilities, schools, recovery related organizations, basically any of our community partners," said Ted Hartwell with the Nevada Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling.

What more needs to be done in a state that both relies on gambling for its economic health, but must deal with the consequences of gambling addiction?

Hartwell said all their efforts need resources. A funding formula was established at $2 per slot on the floor per quarter, however over the past 15 to 17 years, he says we've seen a downward trend of slots in casinos.

Hartwell shared his story of recovery.

"The first place I went was a 12-step meeting. And in the course of that meeting, I convinced myself I wasn't like those other people in the room, because I heard stories that were of a magnitude that I had not yet experienced," he said, and later on, "my then-wife actually discovered, doing an online credit check, the extent to which I'd been gambling again. And that was kind of both the worst and best days of my life, because that was the trigger for me getting serious about my recovery and getting into treatment."

His recovery was through the Robert Hunter International Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas.

Timothy Fong studies problem gambling at UCLA. When he started in 2005, gambling disorder was not recognized as an addition. While they still work to answer the "why," definition of the disorder has come a long way.

"Every single person describes a very similar experience. Gambling was the answer to something, it was the answer to emotional pain, it was the answer to stress, it was the answer to loss of connection. What's going through their body, their brain, their mind is that gambling is, for whatever reason, during the course of addiction, a perfect escape. It takes them to a place of oblivion where it feels safe, even though there are a lot of dangerous things that are happening," he said.

Fong said many of those addicted to gambling are unaware of it. Many of his patients are younger, coming in at earlier stages of their life.

"Las Vegas, I feel like, is a mirror and it's a good way to reflect what's going on with you, as an individual," said Jeff from Las Vegas, who called in on Friday.

Hartwell agreed: "The issues in one's life are often the reasons of that a person begins to engage in unhealthy gambling activity that can transition into an addiction," he said. 

Alan Feldman with the International Gaming Institute at UNLV said significant research has been done to show gambling addiction affects the brain the same way alcohol and substances do.

"Your brain is misfiring and is telling you keep it going, keep it going, keep it going," he said.

How young should you educate about problem gambling?

"I think that we have a responsibility as parents to contextualize and educate our kids about what gambling is, and where it fits in our lives," Feldman said. "And so walking through casinos, if we do that with kids, I think it's important to explain that these are games that adults play, and they're not for kids."

If you or someone you love is experiencing a gambling problem or addiction, and would like to seek help, click here to reach the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. 

Ted Hartwell, member, Nevada Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling, recovering gambling addict; Alan Feldman, distinguished fellow in Responsible Gaming, International Gaming Institute, UNLV; Timothy Fong, clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA, co-founder, UCLA Gambling Studies Program

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.