As executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, Keith Whyte doesn’t spend too much time answering calls from people struggling with gambling addiction. But every so often, the phone rings after hours at the NCPG offices in Washington, D.C., and Whyte gets a reminder of why he got into the business of helping people to battle addiction.
Whyte recalls one woman in Maine who called the NCPG after being turned away from other help lines, whose personnel advised they couldn’t assist because her issue was gambling — not alcohol or drugs or suicide.
“I picked up the phone, and she said, ‘This is the last call I am going to make. I am here in Maine, I have a severe gambling problem, I want to end it all, and I cannot get any help,'” Whyte said. “Fortunately, we’ve had training, so I talked to her while on my cellphone I was calling people I knew who ran problem gambling programs in Maine. And I was able to get a crisis team to her house.”
The crisis team ran into the same snags as the caller — they called a suicide prevention center in Maine, but were told, “We don’t know anything about gambling.” But as Whyte pointed out, “Who cares? She’s suicidal.” As far as Whyte knows, that story had, for lack of a better term, a happy ending. But not so much for a caller he talked to in Las Vegas.
Former military pilot’s sad fate
Whyte came to talk to the man, a military veteran, through a contact at The New York Times, who was working on a story about gambling in the military. The reporter had been talking with a former Army helicopter pilot with a gambling problem — Whyte says the military makes $100 million per year off its own slot machines, but does not provide gambling addiction services. The reporter was concerned because the pilot, who had resigned to avoid a court martial, had dropped out, so the reporter asked Whyte if he could help should the pilot turned up again.
“He called the reporter from a pay phone on the Strip” in Las Vegas, Whyte said. “He’d gone on a gambling binge, and [the reporter] calls me, and I call the head of problem gambling in Nevada, and she leaves her office to race down to this street corner to try to find this guy. Dr. Rena Nora was about five minutes away from the street corner, but didn’t make the connection. The guy had been on his last gambling binge, he made his way back home to the Northeast and shot himself.
“He was an Apache pilot, he was stationed alone — his family didn’t go with him — and he lost money on slot machines on base and couldn’t get any help. The thing that gets me is that we were so close to getting him help. We were so close … ”
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) January 31, 2022
Since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was deemed unconstitutional in 2018, legal sports wagering has proliferated across the United States. More than 30 U.S. jurisdictions have legalized so far, sending tax dollars to education, water programs, and other worthy causes. Many jurisdictions also dedicate a portion of their gambling tax revenue to gambling treatment or education programs, but advocates such as Whyte will say that it’s never enough.
Stakeholders point to the legalization of wagering as contributing to a rise in the number of people suffering from gambling addiction. In many states, there are an overwhelming number of sports betting ads — on billboards, social media, and television — that are increasing such concerns. In both Ohio, which legalized wagering in December, and Louisiana, where mobile wagering went live Friday, news outlets have run stories related to concerns about addiction. It’s a common theme across the country.
Professional sports teams and leagues — including the NFL, whose Super Bowl weekend is the single biggest betting weekend of the year — are joining problem gambling initiatives. In the last week alone, the NCPG launched a program in partnership with the NFL Foundation to fund program gambling initiatives, and the NCAA partnered with EPIC Risk Management to expand “gambling harm” education for its athletes. Operators have also forged partnerships to combat addiction.
‘Tell me what’s going on’
The NCPG is a national clearinghouse for work on addressing problem gambling and promoting responsible gambling. The nonprofit organization lobbies state legislatures to allocate funds, works to make sure that residents anywhere in the U.S. can call a hotline for help, and educates the public and the industry on the topic. But there are no national standards, and most states run their own programs. Those can range from the minimum — manning hotlines — to more extensive programs that include funding for counseling by therapists, running retreats, and other support.
But no matter what the setup, when a gambler dials a hotline number, the process is similar.
Today the NFC and AFC championship games will be played. The winners advance to the Superbowl.
If you bet on the games, know your limits!
— NCPG (@NCPGambling) January 30, 2022
According to Jennifer Davis-Walton, director of gambling addiction services for First Choice Services, the goal is getting necessary information from callers and directing them to the right resources. Davis-Walton’s company contracts with the state of West Virginia to provide gambling addiction services, and the program is among the most comprehensive in the country.
“What happens when somebody calls is, one of our trained hotline coordinators picks up, and one of the first things we are going to say is, ‘Tell me what’s going on.’ We want to hear from their perspective what’s going on, so we’ll ask open-ended questions. Some people are kind of closed and some people tell you pretty much anything and everything. We are as conversational as you and I are today, and we’re going to treat the person on the other end of the phone like someone we know.
“We want to make sure they feel like we’re listening or that we know a little bit about what we’re talking about and that we care.”
Davis-Walton said callers are not required to identify themselves. She recounts a story in which a woman who worked for another government agency called in. The woman told the person answering the phone that she had been in the office where Davis-Walton’s staff works, so was hesitant to give her name but wanted to see a counselor. In the end, Davis-Walton and her staff were able to get the woman the help she wanted without ever knowing who she was.
Technology increases help options
In West Virginia, according to Whyte, technology is available that allows the PG/RG staff to connect callers with a local counselor based solely on their address. With the advent of the internet, callers can be directed to websites that list Gamblers Anonymous meeting times and locations; chat rooms where people share problems and solutions; and other resources, such as software that can block a user from betting on their devices.
The program in West Virginia for those seeking help also includes followup phone calls, meetings, and retreats, all of which allow the staff to offer continued support. In general, though, hotlines function a lot like a paramedic unit — they are the first responders, but the fate of the patient or caller is often unknown.
Staff members Maricel, Lisa, and Jennifer as they prepare for our Weekend ReTREATment event. It brings together people from all over West Virginia who share their struggles with problem gambling. pic.twitter.com/1yQygoxtbw
— 1800GamblerWV (@1800GamblerWV) May 22, 2021
Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a longtime advocate who worked for the NCPG and EPIC Risk Management before opening her own boutique consulting firm this year, got into the problem and responsible gaming world when she took a job with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.
“That’s the big challenge for many of us who answer that call for help,” she said, “We don’t really know what happened. We’re not treatment-based, we’re just a clearinghouse. The majority of callers, you don’t really know how the story ends. Sometimes, you get notes thanking you for the help, but mostly you just pray that you were a helpful, friendly voice that encouraged someone to take the next step.”
Doura-Schawohl said that when she was working in Massachusetts, the range of callers varied. She recalls one gentleman who would call the hotline because he was in recovery, “so when he was triggered” he might call as often as 25 times in a week. There were others who called just to hear a friendly voice. And still others who were seeking information for where to get help.
It’s important to note that “problem gambling” and “responsible gambling” are not interchangeable terms or issues. Problem gambling refers to programs for people who have already developed an addiction, while responsible gambling refers to education to prevent a problem from developing. The two generally go hand-in-hand.
Those who work in problem and responsible gambling are quick to point out that they are not anti-gambling. Rather, they feel that they understand that there are risks involved and some small percentage of people will fall prey to addiction. Their job is to get those people help, not to judge.
“We’re not anti-gambling, we’re gambling-neutral,” Davis-Walton said. “Some people are going to be able to gamble and not have any problem at all. But then you’ve got some people who, unfortunately, are going to develop a problem.”
For those who develop a problem, hotlines are the first line of defense, but sometimes reaching out for help doesn’t result in a positive solution.
“One young man, he is in his 20s and very smart,” Davis-Walton said. “He would sleep in his car three or four nights a week and at a hotel in Delaware (which has legal gambling and sports betting) — depending on his points — the other nights. And he would eat there, basically based on his rewards.
“For a while, I was checking in on him every day, then once a week, then once a month. But he would tell me that while he didn’t feel suicidal at the moment, he knew that that is how he would die. On my last few calls, he didn’t answer.”