Shelby Township resident Nicholas Tabarias’s initiation into problem gambling began in 2014, when he moved in with an aunt who frequently traveled to the casino.
“He loved playing slot machines and frequented the casino almost every day,” he says. “During the early stages, she would accompany her to the casino and watch her play, but eventually the sights, sounds and idea of the big win…turned into gambling problems.”
Tabarias began going to the casino every day to play blackjack, Texas hold ’em and poker tournaments. He also began to be late for work or miss work altogether. He started gambling his paychecks, took out payday loans and ended up pawning his beloved musical instruments.
“I would lose all my money, rack up debt and chase my losses by taking more loans,” he says. “It was a vicious cycle that was progressively destroying my life.”
When he wasn’t at the casino, he spent his time researching strategies, like counting cards, to improve his chances of winning.
“I thought that a big win would solve all my problems, that I could take care of myself and my family and that life would be great,” says Tabarias. “Unfortunately, this was not the case. I was definitely digging myself a very deep hole. I had to hit rock bottom and realize that I was powerless over the game, that my life had become unmanageable and seek help.”
Tabarias’ first step on the road to recovery was to call the 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 were exactly what Tabarias needed to overcome his addiction.
“I love recovery meetings. They welcome you with open arms. You’re in a judgment-free zone and you’re with other people who have very similar stories,” says Tabarias. “It’s like a family unit. You can talk about what you’re struggling with. For me, that really made a difference.”
Problem Gambling Hotline a safe bet
Tabarias is not alone in his experience with problem gambling. His call to the Problem Gambling Hotline was one of 4,400 made in 2021, the first full year online gambling was legal in Michigan. This number triples the calls received in 2020. Although online betting brought the state $20.5 million in tax revenue and other payments only in January 2022, references to gambling treatments increased by 42% from 2020 to 2021. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation has left many Michiganders with downtime, stress and anxiety, all of which increase a problem player’s need to play.
“Online gambling led to increased gambling activity for those who were already engaged and going to casinos and whatever their gambling activity of choice was,” says Alia Lucas, manager of the Disorder Prevention and Treatment program. Michigan game. “Also, it introduced the game as a stand-alone game. If you add greater accessibility with online gaming and sports betting, now it makes it even more available. It’s at your fingertips on your phone or computer. You don’t have to leave your house. That has definitely exacerbated the gambling activity.”
gaming disorder is classified as an addiction-related disorder in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Gambling addiction has highest rate of intentional suicide of any addictive disorder. Problem gamblers are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public.
Signs of gambling problems They include worrying about how to get more money to bet; games of chance with increasing amounts of money; trying to cut down or stop gambling without success; feeling restless or irritable when trying to cut; use gambling to escape from problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression; try to recover lost money by betting more; lying about gambling; jeopardize relationships, school, or job opportunities; and stealing or borrowing to replace money that has been wagered.
“Gaming is a hidden addiction. There are really no physical cues that you can assess to determine if someone is in the head,” says Lucas. “It takes so much understanding and it opens up a big hole in your life. Often times problem players see no other way out.”
The hope of the big win further clouds the judgment of the players. Lucas points out that people who win big during their first gambling experience have a 30% increased risk of problem gambling.
“One thing that makes this particular addiction difficult is that the world recognizes gambling as a recreational pastime,” says Lucas. “For a lot of people, it’s normalized at home. I grew up with family members who played the lottery and I don’t think anything of it. Some family members may have gambling parties, or they may play bingo at church. We they often dismiss problem gambling as a lack of self-control without really seeing it as anything more than recreational gambling.”
State symposium expanded work of hotline
To address the rise in problem gambling, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services held a virtual meeting Symposium on Gambling Disorders on March 3-4, 2022. The event brought hope to people struggling with problem gambling, those who have loved ones who are problem gamblers, and professionals who help others with problem gambling. Gambling addiction experts spoke alongside people who have had problem gambling. The symposium also addressed the rise of young people experiencing problem gambling due to online gaming.
“The game has changed and so have the issues,” says Brianne Doura-Schawohl, symposium keynote speaker and executive director of Doura-Schawohl Consulting, a gaming and government relations consultancy. “We are finding, through the proliferation of online sports and gaming, that helplines in the US are experiencing an increase in calls for help, many of which are young men struggling with sports betting now that it has become much easier to bet from your phone and in the comfort of your home”.
Doura-Schawohl notes that online access has turned the game from an outing or an event to an ever-present temptation. What was once a unique opportunity for a bet on a sporting event has become a series of bets in real time throughout a game.
“If someone struggles with a gaming disorder, it will negatively impact eight to 10 people around them. This is really a significant emotional and mental addiction,” says Doura-Schawohl. “The shame and stigma associated with gambling addiction is the worst of all addictions. Many people who struggle do so in silence.”
To further exacerbate the gambling problem, players can place bets with credit cards and credit card-funded e-wallets. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Germanyand Francethey are banning credit cards and e-wallets and restricting gambling advertisements.
“With legalization, the aggressive marketing, promotions and bonus deals that are often put in front of people incentivize them to play the game more. People are likely betting when they never would have, and it’s instant says Doura-Schawohl. “We’re bringing in a new customer base with this wave and people are getting into gambling for the first time. Many of them are young and don’t know the risks that gambling brings.”
While the new generation of problem gamblers tends to be young, white, well-educated, and male, problem gambling does not discriminate. It is no longer relegated to certain populations. And its reach extends beyond financial ruin.
“Gaming carries risks, just like that sip of alcohol,” says Doura-Schawohl. “Gaming mess ruins lives. But there’s no reason anyone should have to fight in silence. There is help. There is hope. And there are people who want to help.”
Tabarias has found his way to hope on the other side of the gambling problem. He hasn’t played in a year and finds that serving newcomers to his GA group helps him refrain from gambling.
“They also remind me of what I went through. The program has helped me change my way of thinking and living,” says Tabarias. “I’ve been able to pay my debts. I show up for work and I’m on time.”
He also rediscovered his love of music, releasing an album and playing shows with his father.
“It’s a big contrast,” says Tabarias.
To contact the Michigan Problem Gambling hotline, call (800) 270-7117.
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slotmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for fast growth media and presides over The Tree Amigos, Wyoming City Tree Commission. Her greatest achievement is having five amazing adult children of hers. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constelaciones.biz.
Photographs of Nicholas Tabarias by Nick Hagen.