The first bet on sports in Ohio won’t occur until January 2023. But Amanda Blackford is already thinking about the aftermath of the bets. As the director of operations and problem gambling services for the Ohio Casino Control Commission, she is the state’s point person on gambling harm and suicide.
“I do think the operators should consider messaging that is sensitive,” Blackford said. “I think they should work with specialists on something like this. It’s a hard issue to tackle, hard to raise awareness and market in a way that’s sensitive to those who actually have the issue. The language has to be carefully crafted by people who work with those populations.”
Research has concluded that the suicide rate amongst problem gamblers is nearly twice the rate of other addictions.
“How big a problem is it? We know that people with severe gambling problems—and I want to stress severe, not all problem gamblers—have the highest rates of suicidal behavior among any of the addictive disorders,” said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “That’s fairly nuanced and caveated: the studies are all over the place.”
There is some mechanism in the brain for gambling which heightens this kind of behavior, said Heather Wardle of the University of Glasgow, one of the U.K.’s leading problem gambling researchers. “We don’t know exactly how this works, but there is a role that cannot be diminished.”
No one has come up with the genetic code to get inside the mind of someone who has reached the end of their rope.
“We’ve got this kind of statistical evidence, but also have this really strong network of people affected by gambling-related suicides, essentially the parents,” Wardle said. Statistics have also shown it to be the province of younger men.
“We specifically are looking to see if there is something else that explains this, like substance abuse, or mental health disorders, or impulsivity, or anything that kind of explains this relationship,” Wardle said. “But even when you take those things into account, the relationship between problem gambling and suicide sits and it’s really strong.”
Wardle believes the operators aren’t doing all they can to help reduce the suicide rate.
“It’s not being taken seriously enough here, and I’m sure it’s not being taken seriously enough in America,” Wardle told U.S. Bets.
If someone spends a lot of time in customer service in a casino environment, they will likely come across a gambler with suicidal tendencies, Whyte said.
“I’ve never trained a group of employees where at least one person hasn’t come across a suicidal problem gambler.”
Of course, with more and more states legalizing online sports betting (and, in some cases, online casinos), the sheer number of problem gamblers might be on the rise.
“Our surveys show a 30 percent increase in risk for gambling problems between 2018 and 2021, and much of that risk is a cocktail of online sports betting plus pandemic plus young males, who are at higher risk in general,” Whyte said. “A lot of factors cluster together.”
Responsible gaming is the industry’s highest priority, said Cait DeBaun, the vice president of strategic communications and responsibility for the American Gaming Association. Online gaming provides customers with tools to wager responsibly, as players can set limits on the time they spend gaming, individual wager amounts, and how much they deposit. “This puts customers in control of their play while providing operators more insight into player behavior to engage with anyone who may need a break.”
Problem gaming has never been more well-funded than it is today, and the vast majority comes from the hundreds of millions of dollars gaming companies invest annually.
Caesars deals with such issues through its ambassador program. there is always one person on property (or on call) who has received at least 12 to 16 hours of training on what to do if faced with a suicidal customer.
Whyte said U.K. operators are using AI technology to look at the language customers are using in their chats with customer service agents in an effort to detect patterns of potentially harmful discussion.
“For over 99 percent of your audience, it’s not an appropriate message,” Whyte said. “But for customers who have spent hundreds of thousands dollars, or who have a high frequency of play, or are raising other warning flags, then yes, of course the operators should be keeping a close eye.”
Blackford said not everyone has taken that approach.
“I don’t want to call any states out, but I think there has been a rush to market, and in the rush to get things up and legalized a lot of states maybe have not put enough effort into the problem gambling side of things,” Blackford said. “I think overall we haven’t seen enough done to address this, and I certainly hope this is something that will change.”
In Ohio, problem gambling advocates have been busy putting together awareness campaigns. Not just for potential problem gamblers, but also for the sports betting industry at large.
“We’ve currently been working on our awareness campaign, ‘Get set before you bet,’ working on a mobile sports betting toolkit,” Blackford said. “And suicide and suicide ideation are an issue we’re trying to get in front of. Whether you’re talking about casino betting or sports betting, you can use that material. We’re crafting messaging now that will be available to operators. It’s not in our rules or statutes that they have to use that language, but we’re hoping through a collaborative effort that they’ll feel comfortable doing that.”
What if operators rethink the process in terms of a longer vision, Wardle said. “It might be, ‘I am prepared to accept shorter-term growth and lower profit to have a more sustainable gambling model going forward where we’re not having the kind of burnout of people who are experiencing harm,’ and thread it through all the business practices.”
And while Wardle’s solution may be the “correct” one, advocates like Blackford know it probably won’t happen exactly that way.
“I think the burden has to be shared,” Blackford said. “I think the burden is that we as a state, and regulators and operators, simply need to do a better job of suicide awareness. Problem gambling has a suicide rate double that of any other addiction, and that’s not something that’s widely known.