Dismantling the sports-betting ban: A mental health gamble


Vulnerable populations

Another key finding of recent research exploring the biological foundations of gambling disorder is gender dimorphism. In numerous studies, women have been found to experience a “telescoping effect” from gambling, compared with their male counterparts, where they seem to more quickly advance from first exposure to problematic use. This phenomenon also is seen in women who use cocaine. Also, functional MRI studies also have found that women appear to have alternative signal changes in regions germane to addiction, compared with their male counterparts. One such example was greater activity in the hippocampus and middle temporal gyrus in women, suggestive of stronger activation of regions key for memory retrieval used in craving/urge-related emotions. These data highlight the need for not only understanding how gambling and other addictions diverge between men and women, but also for how prevention and treatment of these disorders might differ based on sex.

Adolescents also get special consideration: How will they be affected by this expected growth in gambling avenues? Adolescence and young adulthood are periods of development defined by increased impulsivity and risk taking, making this population particularly vulnerable to addiction that can then persist into adulthood. It is expected that age laws will persist and prevent the legal access adults might enjoy, but shifts in opinions of harm and ease of access are likely to contribute to increased gambling exposure. To use another addictive phenomena as an example, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show a clear correlation between marijuana use, marijuana legal status, and perceptions of risk. Specifically, areas with unfettered/loosened marijuana regulation have much lower levels of perceived risk among youth and much higher levels of use. Gambling could follow a similar course.

Perhaps the most crucial observation is that the most severe pathological gamblers began gambling before adulthood. Many factors have been identified that seem to increase rates of gambling in youth: Receiving scratch-off lotto cards as gifts, gambling on school grounds, and even smoking status (quite significant given the advent of e-cigarettes now common to many high school students). All of these essentially boil down to the common pathway of proximity and social referencing. As such, the notion that an increased social presence of (what will likely be) large scale, polished, mass televised sports gambling events will be associated with increased gambling behavior (and other mental health comorbidities) among youth is not far-fetched. What also is known for gambling, as well as for other addictive disorders, is that earlier age of onset is correlated to a worse prognosis of gambling disorder in adulthood. In other words, the earlier an addiction strikes, the deeper and more severe it is in the individual – further highlighting the impetus to focus concerns about the PASPA ruling toward the impact on youth.

Prevention and treatment

Lastly, it is important to consider the ground gained in preventing and treating gambling addiction. Many groups focused on treating and preventing gambling already are well established, such as Gamblers Anonymous, and these groups have produced favorable results. More targeted interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy adjusted for addiction disorders also have proved effective, as they often not only tackle the gambling disorder but also the collection of conditions it is so often comorbid with (affective illnesses, anxiety disorders).

Pharmacotherapy also has a role, further justifying the view of gambling disorder, and indeed all addiction disorders, as biological processes with biological solutions. Examinations into opiate antagonism and glutamatergic modulation (N-acetylcysteine) also have shown some promise. Prevention programs offer perhaps the best cost-effective ratio in reducing the societal burden of gambling, which is about $7 billion annually, according to 2013 estimates by the National Council on Problem Gambling). These programs have been conducted in schools through parent-teacher groups as well as publicly through distribution of informative psychoeducation via TV and advertising channels.

All available research conducted on treatment shows that further research and validation are needed. We should not pretend that increasing access to sports betting and normalizing the activity will not have an effect on gambling prevalence and problems. Prevention, even simple cautionary public warnings, requires time, money, and planning for effective execution.

Dr. Michael Wenzinger, a clinical fellow, PGY-4, in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Dr. Michael Wenzinger

Can opportunities spring from the increased power the states will gain in their ability to tax the proceeds of sports-based gambling? The capital generated from the events can, and perhaps from an ethical perspective should, be used to support prevention efforts (particularly for adolescents), and to fund further trials into not only treating but studying the biological basis of gambling disorder.

Dr. Mark S. Gold, 7th Distinguished Alumni Professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and professor of psychiatry (adjunct) at Washington University, St. Louis. He is chairman of the scientific advisory boards for RiverMend Health.

Dr. Mark S. Gold

The overturning of PASPA should be on the mind of any clinician who treats patients at risk for developing gambling disorder. Protecting children and teens from gambling – like we did for lottery gaming – is a good first step. Appreciating gambling disorder as a behavioral addiction and being able to impart that concern, either for the purpose of treatment or advocacy, is another preliminary step any provider can take.

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