March is Problem Gambling Month: How to Help

08.29.19 | Advocacy and Action, Wellness and Missions | by Erik Alsgaard

    By Erik Alsgaard

    Within the bounds of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, there are five casinos: four in Maryland and one in West Virginia (Charles Town). Casinos are not legal in Bermuda, but there’s an effort to change that soon.

    Those casinos are in addition to the well-known horse tracks, numerous bingo halls, and thousands of locations where lottery tickets are bought and sold. And now that the NCAA basketball tournament is at hand, who knows how much money is illegally wagered on the games and filling out the “perfect bracket.”

    As if that weren’t enough, a recent Supreme Court decision legalizing sports betting beyond Las Vegas means that Washington, D.C., will soon be home to massive opportunities to place legal sports bets, some from the comfort of your own seat at a Wizards or Capitals game. The casino in Charles Town opened its sports betting parlor last September, and Maryland is exploring this expansion, too. 

    “We’re venturing into new territory with sports gaming,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans last December. He wrote the bill, according to WAMU, and said, “I’m very excited that the District will be out of the box with this. Let’s just hope a lot of people gamble and we get a lot of money.”

    Dr. Deborah G. Haskins, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling (MCPG), doesn’t like what she sees. A licensed addictions counselor, tenured professor, and a certified international gambling counselor, she sees the downside of legalized gambling every day. Haskins is also certified in Problem Gambling and Spiritual Outreach, and is the widow of the Rev. Bruce Haskins, a United Methodist Elder who died Jan. 21, 2016.

    Current estimates are that between 1 and 3 percent of the general population engage in what Haskins called “high risk gambling behavior” and meet the criteria for having a gambling disorder. Overall, about 80 percent of the population answer “yes” when asked if they have ever gambled.

    March is designated as Problem Gambling Awareness Month, Haskins said, in an effort to raise awareness about this issue. One part of raising awareness is a problem gambling toolkit, an online resource individuals can take anonymously at home.

    In a 2011 article, Haskins was quoted about how problem gambling affects Christians.

    “Less attention is given to personal relationships and regular activities, including church activities,” she said. “Chasing gambling losses and seeking a ‘big win’ becomes one’s new ‘spiritual’ pursuit.”

    In addition, a relationship with God is transferred to a relationship with the game. “Many gamblers report that the slot machine becomes their partner or ‘lover,’” Haskins said. “Suffering a loss — a loved one’s death, separation or divorce, job loss, ill-health — they turn to gambling as a welcome distraction from grief.”

    Haskins said that a 2011 baseline study, conducted by the state of Maryland (before the casinos arrived) found that 22.9 percent of adults gambled at least monthly. Fifteen percent gambled weekly, with lottery and casino gambling being the top choices.

    What Haskins and the MCPG know, however, is that fewer than 10 percent of individuals with gambling disorders ever seek help. To address this, a program was developed to educate people often unaware that they are on the frontline of the effects of problem gambling: clergy and lay ministers.

    “Leaders in the spiritual community need to know how to respond effectively and with compassion” when people come in with gambling problems, Haskins said, so that they can offer support, links to treatment, and recovery options.

    “Clergy and others are often brought in whenever problems exist,” Haskins said, be it from gambling or other issues. “When there’s trouble in the house or trouble in the community, we know that faith leaders and lay leaders are typically the ones who are contacted for help. That’s why we wanted to increase awareness among clergy and faith leaders.” 

    Part of the education program, Haskins said, is to help faith leaders respond with compassion. That’s because, more often than not, faith leaders call gambling a sin even though they, too, are part of that 80 percent who have ever gambled. The United Methodist Church’s calls gambling “a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶163.G)

    The IGCCB Clergy/Lay Ministers Certification is designed to provide basic knowledge about gambling addiction, treatment and recovery resources, according to their website, “to enhance the clergy person’s skills at recognizing compulsive gambling, and to provide information for the gambler’s family on dealing with their loved one’s addiction.”

    The MCPG, an affiliate of the National Council on Problem Gambling, takes a neutral stance on the issue of gambling, Haskins said. Their advocacy and action is educating the public and lawmakers, providing support and ensuring that treatment dollars are available for those who need it. West Virginia has an affiliate group, but Washington, D.C., does not, Haskins said.

    RESOURCES:— For resources and support materials from the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling  —  Baltimore City public awareness — Prince Georges county public awareness

    The is the National Council on Problem Gambling; DC residents can get assistance there as DC does not have a Problem Gambling Council yet. — West Virginia Council on Problem Gambling

    1-800-GAMBLER:  Confidential Helpline

    Gamblers Anonymous:

    GAM-ANON: — treatment and counseling help