Gambling addiction is like any other addiction in that it can be difficult to overcome—and can eventually wreak havoc on one’s life. But, technically, how similar is compulsive gambling to substance use disorder? “Cravings in gambling addiction stimulate the same pathways in the brain as drug and alcohol cravings,” said Deb Flynn-Gonzalez (pictured above), director of our Hope for Holyoke recovery center.

Deb was speaking at the Recovery Celebration & Symposium on June 13 at La Quinta Inn & Suites in Springfield. The event, entitled “Having the Conversation: The Recovery Community & Problem Gambling,” was presented by the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling (MCCG) and featured several presenters in the recovery field, including Dennis Gonzalez, a recovery coach at Hope for Holyoke; and James Maloney, a peer resource specialist at Hope for Holyoke.

“Pathological gambling” was first added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, but the term was replaced by “gambling disorder” in the manual’s 2013 update, DSM-5. “This used to be considered an impulse-control disorder, but it was reclassified to one of the substance-related and addictive disorders,” said Deb. “That is a big shift. It used to be regarded a behavioral issue, giving the connotation that the behavior is your choice—that you can just stop. And many years ago that’s what they thought about substance use.”

Now, however, substance addiction is defined as a disease by the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, substance use disorder is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors.

Substance Use and Problem Gambling

Deb compared the similarities of substance use and problem gambling. Indeed, the signs of a gambling problem are often the same as the signs of other addictions. Deb listed the pathological features of both compulsive gambling and substance use disorder:

  • Preoccupation: Frequent thoughts about gambling or substance use experiences
  • Tolerance: The person needs to use increasing amounts of money—or drugs or alcohol—in order to achieve the “rush”
  • Loss of Control: Unsuccessful efforts to cut back or stop
  • Withdrawal: The person is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop
  • Escape: Improving mood and escaping problems
  • Chasing: Attempt to win back losses in gambling—much like substance use: “Just this time and then I’ll get treatment.”
  • Lying: Lies to family members and therapist to conceal the problem
  • Illegal Acts to finance gambling or another addiction
  • Risked Significant Relationship or jeopardizing a job
  • Bailout: Relying on friends and family to “get me through this one”
  • Biological basis: Problem gambling is associated with other psychiatric disorders, including substance use disorder

Deb’s talk was followed by a Peers-in-Recovery Panel featuring “Stories of Hope” from attendees, including Hope for Holyoke members Sheri Borsotti and Phil Govan.

The Culture of Gambling

In an afternoon session, Dennis Gonzalez, a recovery coach at Hope for Holyoke, and James Maloney, a peer resource specialist at the same recovery center, discussed the cultural underpinnings of gambling: not only has wagering become more acceptable and accessible (e.g. online gaming) in our culture, it goes back to ancient times (China, 2300 BC).

Dennis and James called on symposium participants to recall their own first gambling experiences—and in most cases they occurred in childhood. For example, Pogs, a children’s game in the mid-1990s, was a form of gambling. In an arcade’s claw crane machine, a child essentially bets money to win a prize. The list went on: pitching pennies, shooting marbles, flipping baseball cards. “Today, there are mobile apps have hidden gambling elements in electronic games,” said James, pointing out that children “buy” with money or in-game currency, items or privileges, making them susceptible to compulsion. Dennis agreed: “They are setting kids up to get addicted,” he said.

Gándara Center and the Fight Against Problem Gambling

Recovering from compulsive gambling can be challenging, but over the years people have found help through Gándara Center’s counseling services at 85 St. George Road in Springfield. Also, many of our counselors at our Outpatient Clinic in Springfield have attended training sessions run by the MCCG.

In a new program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Health’s Office of Problem Gambling Services, a peer support model known as the Ambassador Project trains men of color who are in recovery to have gambling prevention conversations with other men of color with a history of substance abuse. The Ambassador Project’s pioneering approach to gambling education is taking place in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services (BSAS)-funded peer recovery support centers that include Gándara’s PIER Recovery Center of Cape Cod, our Stairway to Recovery center in Brockton, and Hope for Holyoke.

Research has shown that men are at a significantly higher risk than the general population for gambling, as are people of color and people with a history of substance use. Dennis, who is currently the Peer Gambling Ambassador at Hope for Holyoke, discussed how ingrained gambling is in our national and local culture: Massachusetts citizens legally played the State Lottery, scratch tickets, Bingo, Keno, 50/50 raffles, etc. long before a resort casino was first opened in the state—in Springfield—last year.

This fall, Gándara Center will begin an after-school Youth Problem Gambling Prevention Program at the South End Middle School in Springfield. The effort will be funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Health’s Office of Problem Gambling Services.

The Recovery Celebration & Symposium, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Health’s Office of Problem Gambling Services, was the second that Hope for Holyoke has presented with MCCG. The first was held a year ago. “I’d like to thank Hope for Holyoke for this celebration of all types of recovery and an informative exploration on problem gambling,” said Odessa Dwarika, chief program officer at MCCG. “You have been an amazing partner with us and you do so much for your community.”