YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WYTV) – The thrill of casinos draws in millions of Ohioans every year, but it can become a problem if it sucks you in too far. You have to place that bet, you have to buy that scratch-off ticket or slip your token into the slot machine.
Does that sound like you or someone in your family?
Gambling addiction is different from alcohol or drug addictions. It’s not as physical and it can take a much longer time before anyone realizes that a person has a problem.
Statistics Are Going Up
The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services says Ohio now has 76,400 problem gamblers — that’s just under 1 percent of the population. That number has increased from 31,500 just four years ago.
That’s before Ohio had casino or racino gambling.
Mahoning County was among the 10 Ohio counties with the highest numbers of addicts.
Stephanie Geer, a gambling addiction counselor with Meridian Health in Youngstown, has noticed that change as well.
“My caseload of those that I provide treatment to has doubled in the past couple of years,” she said.
Geer said an influx of dopamine — a chemical released in the brain that rewards its pleasure centers — is released when gambling.
“They essentially experience a high when they’re interacting with a slot machine or scratch-off tickets,” Geer said.
She treats addicts by looking for triggers and making sure that a relapse doesn’t happen.
“They may have mood changes or shifts in their mood — restlessness, irritability, they’re on the edge and snappy. They may start lying about their gambling behavior,” she said.
This treatment she provides is free for addicts, thanks to a grant for prevention services and treatment from Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The prevention money allows Geer’s team to go into schools and talk to students, and even set up booths at Hollywood Gaming in Austintown to try to prevent addiction.
While the number of current addicts needing treatment has grown in Mahoning County and across Ohio, the state is still spending more money on prevention than treatment for addicts.
“You always have to go back for more”
Statewide, more money goes toward prevention than helping people who have a gambling problem. But is that approach working? Some don’t think so.
“From the time I was in high school until the time I went away to college to play college basketball, which I failed out of that school. Then I proceeded to fail out of two more schools. I was always looking for a little action,” Rob Walgate said.
Walgate said the addiction, for him, wasn’t about the money. He said it was all about the feeling.
“You always have to go back for more, much like drugs, in the sense that you always need a little bit more to get a better high next time. Well, if you’re gambling a few thousand dollars, you’re going to have to add to that to get a little bit more of a high.”
Walgate checked himself into a rehab facility after nearly a decade-long downfall. Now he works for the American Policy Round Table and is trying to change how the state helps problem gamblers.
“Casinos around the state, they don’t make money on the people that go once a month and spend $50. They don’t make money on people that are spending $100,” Walgate said. “They make money on people that lose their paycheck.”
Funding Prevention Over Treatment
So how is the state trying to help problem gamblers?
The state has a fund to help problem gamblers. It comes from a tax on Ohio’s four full casinos and money from places like Hollywood Gaming in Austintown. That fund is then split up and sent to county health departments across Ohio, and they decide how to spend it.
In Mahoning County, they spend 60 percent of their normal budget from the state on prevention programs and 40 percent of their cut on treatment facilities.
“We get about just over $46,000 in casino gambling prevention and then we get $30,870 in treatment,” said Brenda Heidinger, with the county board of health.
For the past few years, the county has been able to get $50,000 in extra money for treatment through a state grant, but that money isn’t guaranteed. Sometime in the next year, the state is looking to change how it spends that cash.
There is also a statewide prevention program promoting BeforeYouBet.org. A million dollars goes to that each year.
Walgate said that while the education part is important, more money needs to go toward treatment and research.
“It’s not like drugs and alcohol. There’s a difference there and sometimes even when it comes to the treatment, the doctors that are treating us, they don’t quite understand that difference.”
Beginning with the next state fiscal year, money will be spent according to the needs of a county.