Research into problem gambling has linked the condition to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It may be no surprise that the affliction is more prevalent among the military, both active-duty and veterans.
Gambling disorder is also more common among young men of lower socioeconomic strata who use and abuse substances and experience stress—all factors known to be more likely among military personnel.
A 2018 article in Veterans Today stated that active-duty military, “idle in barracks and military bases while waiting for orders,” may gamble “to pass the time and for a short while, pretend to be in a civilian setting.” For them, gambling is a distraction, a coping mechanism and also a way to bond with their peers. In some cases, the “risk-taking personalities of these soldiers make them vulnerable and prone to … gambling problems.”
Across the board, most people who gamble do so for entertainment, and suffer no ill effects. But a small percentage of gamblers “will exhibit severe, acute and chronic problems” and higher levels of problem and pathological gambling “associated with … characteristics of military personnel,” reports the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG).
What makes service members more vulnerable? Shane Kraus, director of the Behavioral Addictions Lab at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), said gambling disorders and mental health issues “just go together. And unfortunately, some veterans of military service have experienced PTSD, trauma or other issues that make them more vulnerable to mental health issues, compared to civilians.”
What’s more, this is a hidden disorder, whose sufferers can go years without detection or deciding to seek help. There are no physical signs of gambling disorder, so clinicians don’t often recognize or screen for it. And if they don’t ask, those with the problem won’t tell.
“Because it’s a behavioral disorder, it’s much easier to hide from loved ones,” said Kraus. “But that’s also what makes it so devastating.” Over time, the disorder can have potentially grave consequences for the gambler’s finances, personal relationships, health and peace of mind.
At military bases around the world, Uncle Sam makes it easy to gamble, with thousands of slot machines available to the armed forces and their families (in the 1950s, the machines were barred from stateside bases). By one estimate, these slots generate about $100 million per year for the Department of Defense.
Kraus said proximity itself is a risk factors. “When we think about the pathways for problem gambling, one of them is accessibility and access.”
It’s hardly the sole factor. Another is the need for “escapism, using gambling to deal with really difficult things,” like separation from home and family and the possibility of deployment.
“Sometimes, it’s feeling the high and the euphoria that come with big wins,” said Kraus. “But ultimately, that can lead to chasing your losses, always returning to get the next big break. These are unique aspects of gambling that make it very, very difficult to treat from a clinical perspective.”
The stigma that goes with a gambling disorder can keep some people from treatment, or admitting they have a problem. “We make a lot of moral judgments around these issues,” said Kraus. “But from a research and clinical perspective, it’s an addictive disorder.”
Support without judgment is essential, he said. “Loved ones, family members, partners, friends—all of them have a huge influence. I always encourage them to talk to the person who’s struggling. When someone’s really in a difficult spot, they don’t always have the ability to see their problem clearly and have that perspective. When loved ones support them through this process, it’s actually incredibly meaningful.
“So if your loved ones are supporting you, giving you respect and holding your hand through this process, you have a stronger chance to overcome this and get past some of the shame and guilt you might feel.”
For Increased Services, Support
The UNLV research found that gambling disorder “often co-occurred with trauma-related conditions, substance use and suicidality, which may complicate treatment outcomes.” It also noted a lack of intervention and standardized screening among veterans across U.S. federal agencies, leaving “a significant gap for ongoing prevention and treatment efforts.”
“I’ve been shocked at how little funding there is for problem gambling, even in special populations like veterans or people of color or lower income,” said Kraus. “It’s a major problem. I think the Veterans Administration is changing and opening up a dialogue about it. I don’t know that I feel as confident about the Department of Defense.”
In 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs took a big leap forward with the opening of its second in-patient gambling addiction recovery center—right in the heart of Las Vegas (the first opened in 1972 in Ohio). The Las Vegas VA Residential Recovery and Renewal Center, or LVR3, hosts 30-day and 45-day programs for gambling and substance abuse treatment.
While Kraus said it’s heartening to see greater recognition of the problem, “broadly speaking, problem gambling is still not getting the visibility it needs, given the severe consequences of those who are really struggling.”