Whether it’s the State of the Union or the NCAA championship game, Lara’s first instinct with public spectacles is usually, “Can I bet on it?” Placing wagers makes events more interesting and keeps her more engaged. Then there’s the lotto: Whether it’s scratch-off tickets or doubling down in blackjack, she loves the rush. “I’m a competitive person by nature,” she says. “Betting’s a thrill. It’s kind of like playing sports, without all the extra effort.”
Still, she keeps herself in check: No bets bigger than $100. No gambling with strangers, and no late nights at the casino. She has friends with bookies and bigger bankrolls, but those stakes are too rich for her blood—and she’s seen the damage this high-risk lifestyle can cause. “I have a friend whose marriage is hanging by a thread, because her husband’s a compulsive gambler,” says the 29-year-old Internet consultant. “It’s like having an affair, but worse, because tangible, shared assets are on the line.” Lara loves gambling—but she’s able to walk away.
In one way, that makes Lara (who declined to use her real name, since gambling is, after all, mostly illegal) like 96-plus percent of the population, who can bet safely, without fear of addiction—and the depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even physical problems, including digestive and sleep disorders, that often accompany it. But for those with a passion for gambling, this time of year can be particularly dangerous.
When March Madness wraps up tonight, the game will bring an end to the second-largest gambling event in the nation, behind the Super Bowl. Even people who ordinarily shun slots and betting parlors throw down money to fill out office brackets. “March Madness creates a flood of gambling opportunities,” says Howard Shaffer, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the school’s Division on Addictions. And in a season with so many buzzer beaters and bracket upsets, it could leave some hardcore gambling fans restless for the next thrill—and questioning whether the feeling is normal.
Which is a valid question. After all, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated over a decade ago that the total impact of gambling disorders—including crime, lost wages, debt, bankruptcy, and so on—was around $5 billion a year.
For those with a bent for gambling, this time of year can be particularly dangerous.
That’s why Shaffer and his colleagues have developed a new online tool based on extensive research to help gamblers like Lara figure out if they’ve crossed a line, or are in danger of crossing one. The four-question test allows users to check their own gambling behavior—in the privacy of their home—and learn about options for treatment. A bonus for all you gambling fans: The interactive widget might provide a similar rush to that of a slot machine—once you push the enter button, who knows what will come up?
Thanks to the explosion of online gambling opportunities and the rise of state-run casinos, it’s easier than ever for people like Lara to feel the rush of a big bet. But that also means more chances for abuse—and when it seems like everyone is doing it (studies indicate about 80 percent of the population gambled last year), how can you tell whether your weekly visit to the craps table is a harmless hobby or a sign of a disorder?
“Gambling is very parallel to alcohol use,” says Christine Reilly, senior research director for the National Center for Responsible Gambling, and it can help to think of it in similar terms: There are teetotalers, who never go near it, and occasional imbibers, who indulge a few times a year; social users, who punctuate weekly or monthly use with a few embarrassing benders, and enthusiasts who spend a lot of money and time trying to become a master. Then there are full-blown addicts, who alienate friends and family, lose jobs and money, and can’t go too long without a fix. Like alcoholics, gambling addicts are often secretive, irritable, and unable to cut back.
But there’s one big difference between the two: Someone who’s spent the last 12 hours doing tequila shots is easier to identify than someone who just blew their rent at the track—and casual observers may have a tough time distinguishing a social gambler from a problem one. “The behaviors a [gambling enthusiast] engages in aren’t that different from a person who is a pathological gambler,” says Shaffer, “except that for a person who has the disorder, the consequences are much greater or much more impactful on their life.”
Which is why early intervention can be critical. Teens and college kids are especially at risk for developing problems—studies have shown higher rates of gambling disorders among these groups. Yet with the median age of onset being 23, there’s an important window when addiction can be averted, says Shaffer. “This is a period when youth are experimenting with gambling, but perhaps have not yet developed extreme gambling behaviors,” says the doctor. “An intervention might help divert the development of risky gambling behavior during this vulnerable time.”
With these findings in mind, it’s surprising that only 22 percent of colleges have addressed the issue through written policies. On Tuesday, the National Center for Responsible Gambling launched an online initiative directed at campus gambling, which is often a popular fundraising tool for sports teams and Greek life. The campaign is “a lot more nuanced then just banning gambling on campus,” says Reilly, especially since the large majority of students can gamble without consequence. “There are a lot of details and issues that come up, and colleges and universities need the tools to handle them.” Their website provides some of those tools, as well as information about the realities of campus gambling.
The goal, says Reilly, is for universities to identify students with problems before those students graduate. “You don’t want them developing a problem that takes them into adulthood,” she says. “You want them to mature out of it, and schools can help them do that.”
For adults long out of school, it can be harder to find the help they need—or to realize that their gambling is out of control in the first place. For anyone who suspects that it might be time to cut back, the Harvard tool is a good first step.
Kate Dailey is a senior articles editor at Newsweek, where she covers health, lifestyle, society, and culture.