Sports Betting, Mental Health and Addiction: What You Need To Know

A Brave New World

If you’re a sports fan with a pulse, you’ve likely noticed a seismic shift in the relationship between American professional sports and gambling in the past few months. Only a few years ago it was uncommon to hear any discussion of sports betting during a sports broadcast. Today, talk of the point spread and over-under are common throughout the broadcast, with paid promotional partnerships between professional leagues and gambling companies spread throughout the coverage, and commercials for other gambling companies arriving in never-ending waves during each commercial break. Sports betting revenue is expected to reach $2.5 billion and $8 billion by 2025.

At the same time, blogs and news stations are telling more and more stories highlighting the dangers of sports betting and easy access to gambling. Average looking people tell horror stories of losing their savings, families, jobs, and mental health.

But what does all this mean for you? How does a regular person know: 1) if they should participate in sports betting, 2) what precautions to take to protect themselves, and 3) what to do if sports betting starts to cause problems in their life?

In this article we will answer these three questions and provide the resources you need to make the right decision for yourself.

Should You Bet on Sports?

At its core, sports betting is a recreational activity with risks. This is not unusual. Many recreational activities involve risk, including skiing, hiking, hunting, surfing, and many others. Before you decide to participate in any of these activities, you must make an honest assessment of your health, stamina, skills, and capabilities. For example, if you decide to undertake a long hike without the proper footwear, supplies, and training you can run into serious trouble which could end in a search and rescue operation or worse.

Though it may seem different because the risks associated with sports betting are to your mental health rather than your physical health, in reality, the process of deciding whether or not to participate is the same. All it takes is an honest evaluation of yourself and your circumstances, and an understanding of the risks associated with gambling.

Read more: The Psychology of Sports Betting

When it comes to our mental health, we have to ask ourselves how are we “actually” feeling, and, whether what we are feeling is bothersome, to the point where we may turn to certain outside substances or activities to find an escape from those feelings. The most common of these substances are recreational drugs and alcohol. They are substances that numb the emotional pain and suffering that we often experience when our mental health is not at its best. It is important to note that “impacted mental health” is most often the result of challenging life events that happened TO us – and typically not things we choose for ourselves. We must deal with the emotional pain that comes as the effects of those challenges accumulate and build up inside of us over time. 

While drugs and alcohol may be the most common substances you’ve heard about to address that pain, activities like gambling can also be used to escape that same pain. Gambling releases chemicals in our brains and bodies that – like alcohol and drugs, can reduce or distract from our pain. Therefore, before you consider gambling, ask yourself the question, “Am I engaging in this activity because I’m excited to have responsible fun, knowing the risks?” or, “Am I engaging in this because it makes me feel better by covering up the other uncomfortable feelings I may not want to deal with?” To address this, take a look at the #SameHere Scale.

same here scale

If you find yourself noticing that you are most often “Fluctuating” and to the right on the #SameHere Scale (especially when it’s been for a prolonged period for 2 weeks or more), there’s a likelihood you are dealing with nervous system dysregulation as a result of the challenging events you’ve lived through. As a result, you may be using gambling to cover up the uncomfortable sensations and feelings that arise out of this dysregulation. If you are Fluctuating and to the right for prolonged periods, this may indicate that this is not the best time in your life to begin or get back into gambling. Instead, you may want to execute a variety of therapeutic options until you can heal and re-enter the gambling space from a healthier mindset.

In addition, people who experience harm from gambling often have co-occuring mental health complications that are often an outcome of the nervous system dysregulation mentioned above. Those who have experienced or been diagnosed with mental health complications such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD should be very cautious when deciding to participate in sports betting.  

How to protect yourself?

Once you’ve made the decision to participate in sports betting, it’s time to take a few simple precautions before you begin.

Check state laws: In the US, gambling is governed by the laws of each individual state. That means, what is legal for you in New York may not be legal for your friends living in New Jersey, your parents in Kansas, or your college friends in California. To see what forms of gambling are legal in your state, visit the website of your state gaming commission or gambling control board.

Choose a legal operator: If you Google “sports betting”, you will find hundreds of online companies willing to take your business. However, states only offer a limited number of licenses to operate legally within each state, and many of the companies that will take your bets are not following the laws of your state. By using only companies operating legally in your state, you maximize the legal protections of your funds and information should you run into problems with the operator.

Set time and money limits: Before your first bet, you will want to identify what your gambling budget is and how much time you intend to spend on the activity. The only way to know in the future if you are going outside of your limits is by setting clear limits before you begin. We  recommend setting financial and time limits that are similar to what you would spend another hobbies that you enjoy, and never gamble any money you need for living expenses like rent, food, or car payments.

Tell a friend: In the same way you would tell someone where you were going if heading out on a long solo hike, it is good practice to discuss your plans to start gambling with a friend who you trust and who you will be speaking to regularly. If you are in a relationship, it is also good practice to speak with your partner before you begin. In starting any hobby that includes risks, it is always a good idea to have somebody outside of yourself looking out for your best interests.

What to do if gambling becomes a problem?

Seek Treatment: As mentioned above, gambling problems often come along with other mental health conditions, and if you’re experiencing problems with your gambling they should be addressed by a professional who can assess if you have one or some of these other mental health conditions that are impacting your life. If you are already seeing a psychologist or therapist, you should bring up your gambling habits with your clinician. If you are not seeing a professional, you should consider your options for treatment. Military veterans can seek help through the VA, and some states have funds set aside to cover the cost of treatment for gambling problems. Kindbridge Behavioral Health (KBH), a telehealth mental health company focused on providing treatment for gamblers and gamers, is also available to provide treatment in more than 25 states. The KBH clinicians have specific training in gambling disorder and gambling-related harm.

Self-Exclusion: Most states provide the option to self-exclude from online casinos. That is, you can voluntarily decide that you no longer want to participate in gambling and the state and operators licensed in the state will work together to help you achieve that goal. Specific self-exclusion programs vary from state to state, but you can learn more on the website of your local gambling commission or state problem gambling office. In addition, blocking software like Gamban can help block access to betting websites and apps from your smart phone.

Find support: There are a number of support groups available to people experiencing problems with their gambling, Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is probably the most well-known with meetings in all 50 states and online. Gamblers in Recovery also have a wide variety of meeting times throughout the day and group support available across the globe. There are also other support groups both in-person and online, and other communities that have grown up around social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Even if you don’t feel comfortable participating, simply attending and listening in to an online support group may help you better understand what you are experiencing and how others have dealt with the same problems.

If you don’t know where to start, the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) helpline can direct you to the resources in your area. Call them at 1-800-522-4700.

Tell someone: The hardest thing to do is also the most important. Feeling that you are alone, lying to loved ones, hiding finances, and other ways of avoiding the truth are some of the most destructive behaviors for people experiencing problems with their gambling. It is much better to be honest with your partner when you begin experiencing problems than to hide the truth and let the problems grow. Most of the serious negative consequences that individuals experience related to gambling come after long periods of hiding the truth from their employers or loved ones. The best thing you can do if you’re starting to experience problems is to tell someone.

Read more: How to Stop Sports Betting

Written by Nathan D. L Smith, Ph.D. – Executive Director at Kindbridge Research Institute and Andrew Pleener, M.D. – Founder & Director of #SameHere STARR & Psych Alliances