Immigrants at Greater Risk for Problem Gambling

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. Among problem gamblers, one group may be at greater risk: newly arrived immigrants, who fly under the radar of assistance programs.

Immigrants at Greater Risk for Problem Gambling

Organizations aimed at supporting problem gamblers may be overlooking a sector of society that is at greater risk of remaining unreachable and therefore, more vulnerable.

Immigrants make up approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population, with many of them unable to speak English.

In Nevada, a state synonymous with gambling, there’s been an above-average increase in immigrants drawn by employment opportunities in the gaming, hospitality and farming sectors. According to a World Population Review report, Nevada has the highest number of illegal immigrants than any other U.S. state, at 8.8 percent.

This can create a perfect storm for people at risk for problem gambling.

What Is Problem Gambling?

Problem gambling has been described as an uncontrollable ability to stop gambling, no matter the personal, financial or physical cost. Such is the despair created by problem gambling that one in five addicted gamblers have considered suicide or taken their own lives.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), an estimated 2 million U.S. adults (1 percent) have a severe gambling problem and another 4 million to 6 million (2 percent to 3 percent) would be considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems. By another estimate, up to 10 million Americans have some form of gambling problem. And concerns are rising for future generations due to “loot-style” video-gaming purchases.

The psychology and science behind pathological gambling have been widely debated, with experts agreeing on several markers of harm. Addictive personalities, depression, anxiety, stress, and social and economic deprivation can all contribute to the development of a severe gambling problem.

So, what makes immigrants so vulnerable to problem gambling?

Social Isolation, Language Barriers

Immigrants choose to come to the U.S. for a wide variety of reasons, with most either looking for something more or leaving something behind. Whatever the reason for the move, the change of environment can be overwhelming for many.

Social isolation can be a common link between immigrants and problem gamblers. Time spent at a casino, in a welcoming, bright atmosphere and in close proximity to others, can be exhilarating. While hours spent alone in a bar might be perceived as troublesome, the same amount of time spent at a racetrack or casino is socially acceptable.

In a bar, the drinks only flow if the money does. In a casino, the drinks will flow when the chips are placed. There’s always a warm welcome and a friendly smile from staff members whose job it is to encourage “dwell time.”

In a recent survey, 46 percent of all immigrants consider themselves to have limited English proficiency (LEP); that includes immigrants who speak no English at all. This inability to communicate with others outside their familial circle can further heighten a person’s sense of isolation.

Even though 14 percent of immigrants in America live below the poverty threshold, wealth and status are not specifically linked to problem gambling. A CEO of a company and a jobless student can both become compulsive gamblers. The difference is that it will likely affect one more than the other and affect them more quickly.

It can be difficult when a problem gambler gets a decent win early on. The “high” that comes with such a win stimulates pleasure responses in the brain. For someone with an addictive personality, the need to feel that high again can become all-consuming. And for immigrants with little or no social circle and few alternative leisure options, the gambling cycle can perpetuate. At the casino or playing games online, it’s not necessary to speak the language. Symbols on slot machines are universal. A picture of a bell is a picture of a bell.

Help Is Hard to Come By

And how does an immigrant access help?

There are plenty of websites that offer support, including the NCPG, Gamblers Anonymous and the Recovery Village. The problem is, for the most part, the help is offered in English. There are Spanish-speaking help classes, due to the high proportion of immigrants from Latin America. But none can be found in Polish, German or Chinese.

Legislation covering Nevada casinos states, “Each licensee shall post or provide in conspicuous places written materials concerning the nature and symptoms of problem gambling,” along with the NCPG’s toll-free help line or “a similar entity that provides information and referral services for problem gamblers.”

But there’s no explicit mention that these materials be written in languages other than English.

Ironically, in 2018, the tagline for Problem Gambling Awareness Month was “Have the Conversation.”

If only everybody could.