“I can’t stop. What started as fun has destroyed me.” “I am the ultimate disappointment to my family.” “I wouldn’t wish this habit on my worst enemy.”
These are the words of young addicts. However, for Mike, Dave and Steven (not their real names), their drug of choice doesn’t come from a needle, bottle or pipe. They get their fix at a casino, video lottery terminal or online gambling site. They are part of an alarming rise in problem gambling which has swept campuses across North America since the mid-1990s.
“The primary reasons for gambling are not necessarily to win money, but more for the excitement, entertainment and adrenaline rush,” says Jeffrey Derevensky, co-director of McGill University’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors. “And these age groups [adolescents and young adults] are the ones who most seek this kind of activity.”
Dr. Derevensky is part of a growing group of researchers who are broadening the definition of “at-risk” youth. Gambling, particularly in a group setting, has joined binge drinking and drug experimentation on the list of high-risk peer-group activities to which teens and university-age adults easily fall prey.
“We know that adolescence and early adulthood, particularly for males, is a period of risk taking. It is hard-wired in the brain,” says centre co-director Rina Gupta. “And gambling is a form of risk taking that is quite prevalent, quite socially accepted and accessible. People also perceive gambling as a way of gaining social status, which is also an important objective in adolescence and early adulthood.”
The vast majority of young people engage in some form of gambling, says Dr. Derevensky, and younger people are approximately twice as likely as older adults to develop a problem with it. In virtually every study of prevalence, the highest participation in gambling activities is in the 18-24 age group.
Drs. Derevensky and Gupta began studying this issue in the early 1990s and co-founded the centre in 2001. Since then, they have seen the rise of Internet casinos and, concurrently, an explosion in the popularity of poker, which grew from a sub-culture into the mainstream. “There have been a number of very successful young poker players, particularly from Quebec. People look at these stars and say, ‘I’m just as smart as that guy. I could do it,’” says Dr. Gupta.
“In some cases, students put their educational path at risk. Some of them drop out of school to try to gamble for a living.”
The McGill centre offers free treatment to young gamblers, with a focus on confronting the underlying issues driving them to gamble, as well as replacing the gambling high by developing healthier alternatives.
“Unfortunately, they only come forward for help when they are already in very deep trouble. No one seeks help when they’re winning,” Dr. Derevensky says.
Complications from the casino lifestyle include legal problems, estrangement from families and friends, crippling debts, and even the risk of assault from loan sharks. “Lots of them have stolen from their families, racked up huge debts and credit card bills. Some become suicidal.”
People get drawn into such a cycle of trouble because the gambling urge can be as powerful as any addiction. “People talk about ‘the addictive personality’ [and] we have seen that gamblers tend to smoke and drink more, and tend to have a variety of addictive problems, compared to the general population,” says Ron Frisch, a University of Windsor professor of psychology who sits on the centre’s advisory board.
David Hodgins, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, is a gambling researcher who studies addictive behavior and co-morbid psychiatric disorders.
“Co-morbidity, in this context, is when gambling addiction co-occurs with other mental health problems. The largest overlap is with substance abuse. But it also overlaps with lots of other disorders, like depression, anxiety and ADHD [attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder]. We’re really just starting to understand what those relationships are, but what we know is that when someone has both depression and a gambling problem, it’s a much harder recovery than someone with just a gambling problem.”
The emotional turmoil of a gambling addiction may be the most damaging aspect to the individual, says Dr. Hodgins. “There is a feeling of helplessness, loss of control, a great deal of stress affecting studies and relationships, and suicidal ideation. Gambling is not just about losing money.”
Because of gambling’s mostly benign image, researchers are trying to raise awareness of the issue on campuses. “There are fraternities at different colleges in this country that are holding poker tournaments for fundraising. We would never be holding a beer-drinking contest to raise money,” Dr. Derevensky points out.
“I think universities have to become more proactive, as they are doing with other sources of potential addiction. University counsellors need to be made aware of the warning signs of compulsive gambling and how to help someone with a gambling problem. Why not put up posters around campus with the phone numbers of gambling hotlines? All the techniques of anti-drug and anti-drinking campaigns could be duplicated when it comes to gambling.”