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Health

Calls to the Michigan gambling problem helpline nearly tripled last year

Gambling addicted man in front of online casino slot machine on laptop computer at night.
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Internet casino gambling and online sports betting has been big business in Michigan. But in the year since it was legalized, signs of gambling disorders are growing, state health officials say.

Update, March 4, 2022: Michigan needs to expand and evolve treatment resources for people struggling with problem gambling, experts said Friday.

At a statewide problem gambling symposium, mental health trainer Deborah Haskins said providers need to understand how gambling has appealed to new audiences during the pandemic. It became easier than ever to gamble on the phone, just as many Michiganders were finding themselves stuck at home because of the pandemic, she said.

"You had more people who were feeling emotionally vulnerable. And so when people are feeling vulnerable, what are you going to do? If you can't go out, you're gonna use your device," Haskins said. "We're definitely seeing the [gambling] numbers increase."

At the same time, online sports betting is increasingly being marketed to potential new gamblers as a way to stay connected with friends, at a time when more people are feeling isolated.

"With sports betting, they feel like it's a 'consumption community,'" Haskins said. "That's a business term. Basically, the consume sports as an identity: 'I like being in the tribe of people who like sports. And we come together every week and we engage. Or everyday when I'm playing fantasy sports.' What we see is, we have more people who are betting on sports."

But efforts to help people struggling with disordered gambling can end up making people feel stigmatized.

"If we are branding all our messaging ... as 'problem gambling,' we're not going to reach people. Because guess what? As soon as they see it, they're going to say, 'I don't have a problem. I'm just having fun.'"

In states like Massachusetts and Maryland, new outreach efforts don't focus on how someone has a problem, Haskins said. Instead, they incorporate problem gambling resources as part of a broader mental health initiatives.

In Massachusetts, for example, the "Ambassador Project" offered training to "men of color with a history of substance abuse" about leading conversations around problem gambling and other substance abuse problems.

Original post: One year after Michigan legalized internet casino gambling and online sports betting, more people are seeking help for gambling disorders. The stress and isolation of COVID-19 compounded the issue, health official say.

MDHHS is also hosting a virtual conference next week on online gambling and sports betting, which is both used to train and educate mental health and social work professionals and is open to the public.

In the year since Michigan legalized online casino gambling and sports betting, some 4,400 calls poured into the state’s problem gambling hotline. That’s nearly triple the calls received in 2020, before online betting was legal.

The combination of COVID-19 stress and isolation, as well as a barrage of online betting advertising and opportunities, “presents an increased risk for gambling disorders to develop – particularly for younger participants who may be anxious, frustrated or isolated, and seeking a greater connection as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” state health officials said in a statement Friday.

“These platforms engage in a pay-to-play format, so by their nature they’re addicting and difficult to escape,” said Alia Lucas, gambling disorder program manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “This can lead to severe financial trouble, as well as strained personal and work relationships as people participate in these spaces more than ever before.”

In the first year of legalization, Michigan’s been a lucrative market for online gambling operators. People bet more than $3.7 billion in internet casino gambling and online sports betting in 2021, according to the Michigan Gaming Control Board. But the real bottom line was $1.1 billion: that’s how much online betting operators made, after you deduct the value of free play incentives they gave out as promotions to bettors. Some $280 million was paid in taxes, fees and other payments to the state, the city of Detroit, and tribal governing bodies.

At the same time, referrals for gambling treatment climbed more than 40%, according to the state, from 295 referrals in 2020 to 420 referrals last year. The health department is encouraging those who have a gambling problem, or know someone who does, to call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline, 800-270-7117.

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