OWENSBORO, Ky. — Sports betting is already generating millions of dollars for the state of Kentucky since it became legal. But it’s also coinciding with a rise in people seeking treatment for gambling addiction, according to one therapist.
It’s been just over a month since sports betting went live in the state. In that time, tens of millions of dollars have already been wagered. A portion of the money goes to the state to shore up Kentucky’s public pension deficit, among other uses.
Some of the money will also go to the state’s problem gaming fund.
Dr. RonSonlyn Clark, president of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, said those funds will be put to work.
The KCPG was established 27 years ago to help promote prevention activities, awareness and educational pursuits for gamblers and individuals with disorder gambling issues around the state.
“We’ve had to adjust with technology as technology has increased, and now gambling is no longer going to an arena or an event or a casino. You can gamble from the comfort of your home in your pajamas 24/7, every day of the year,” Clark said. “Gambling exists. We just are here to treat the individual that has a problem with gambling, and we want to identify them and provide them quality resources for treatment activities.”
While KCPG doesn’t take a stance on the morality of gambling, Clark explained that “magical thinking” often gets people in trouble.
“This next one, I’m gonna win. If I flip a coin ten times, and nine times I hit tails, it’s gotta hit heads next time. No, it’s still 50-50 next time. Magical thinking is: it’s going to come along. It’s bound to, I’m lucky,” she said. “They don’t build casinos and arenas on people winning all the time. They can build those places on people investing in them by their losses.”
One problem Kentucky might face is there simply aren’t a lot of professionals like Clark available to help those who might develop gambling problems.
“Right now in Kentucky, sadly, we only have five certified compulsive gambling counselors,” she said.
Clark currently sees about six to eight people around the state, some virtually. The problem could be exacerbated with what Clark expects to be a large influx of new sports bettors.
“One to 2% of those folks, per statistics, are going to need to have some treatment,” she said. “We’re beginning to see more calls to the 1-800 gambler hotline. I have talked with some of the call takers at that help line. And they said the day that the apps went live, they had an increase in calls. And I think it’s going to take a little bit of time before we see more people wanting to get into treatment or needing to get into treatment.”
As for the existing systems in place to help people with problem gaming, Clark said, “I think there’s some infrastructure in place. I wish it could be stronger.”
She said sports betting “should be fun, it should be entertainment. I think we can always look at more and more constraints, time limits, amounts gambled per day.”
She’s seen up close with her patients how out of hand it can get.
“I’ve had people that can gamble $1,000-$2,000 a day. Most people can’t do that. Most people need to be limited to less than $100 a day, probably. Or less than even $50 for many people,” Clark said. “I had one guy one time who placed a bet on every down, in every game on Sunday afternoon.”
There’s one issue that particularly troubles Clark in regard to the gambling addiction.
“Gambling addiction, disorder gambling, is the highest rate of suicide of any mental health disorder that we have. One in five. 20% of people will attempt or complete suicide once they get into some trouble with gambling, because of the financial problems, the secrecy, the shame, the guilt and the family involvement,” she said.
She explained some of the factors that lead to addiction.
“There’s certainly an addictive quality that goes along with gambling, as in substance use, alcohol use and many other kinds of behavioral addictions. Some of this has a genetic component. Some of it is the lifestyle. Some of it is what you’re exposed to. Some of it may be just a new coping skill that people have learned to help them escape from day-to-day problems,” Clark said.
“Those individuals are sometimes the ones that we really need to get into treatment, because we need to look at those co-occurring disorders. Is there anxiety, underlying depression that needs to be treated? Where the person would be going and zoning out on a device,” Clark explained.
While there are similarities between gambling addiction and substance use addiction, there are also many differences, as Clark explained.
“In substance abuse, we can take somebody in, and we can give them a urine drug screen, and we can tell that they’ve been using methamphetamine or opiates or cocaine. There’s no screen like that to use to tell somebody’s been playing poker or on a sports app, or been to the casino,” she said. “This is the one area of behavioral addictions that we see that, even at your lowest, you can still have some success. You’re gonna lose, lose, lose. But then you have a day you win, where if you use a substance, it’s a bad day, bad day, bad day.”
Right now, the money allocated for the state’s problem gaming fund is going toward awareness and prevention activities and developing the workforce the state needs, Clark said. What she’d like to see are two people connected in each community mental health center region of the state.
In the future, she’d love to see a rehab center built to help people recover. That would require about two to three million dollars a year, she said.
The Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling is looking at doing blitz training in January to get people interested in becoming gambling counselors the training they need.
Anyone who needs help should call the 1-800 gambler hotline.
“There’s always help and hope out there. I’ve seen people get into recovery from gambling addiction and have many years without placing a bet. And we certainly want to see that,” Clark said.