TUPELO • It’s just a scratch-off game or a lottery ticket, until it isn’t.
For most people, buying a lottery ticket or scratch-off game will be an inexpensive, entertaining lark. They might spend a few minutes day dreaming about what they might buy if they won, but they will move on with their day. But for some it will become a compulsion that leads people to chase the elusive big win.
For some people, gambling can be just as addictive as alcohol or drugs.
“It still produces a high, even though the chemical may be adrenaline,” said Dody Vail, executive director of the Northeast Mississippi chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Scratch-off games became available in Mississippi last week, and the multi-state Power Ball and Mega Millions lottery will come online Jan. 30. Now that people can gamble in real life without driving hours to a casino or crossing state lines, recovery advocates are concerned that more Northeast Mississippians could fall into compulsive gambling.
Spending $50 a week on scratch offs and lottery tickets may not sound like a lot, but $2,600 a year is a significant chunk out of the median income in Lee County, about $45,000, Vail said.
About 10 percent of the population is vulnerable to compulsive gambling, said Kelly Ferguson of Fair Park Counseling in Tupelo. As with other addictions, people who gamble compulsively continue the behavior in the face of negative consequences, like spending money they need to pay the mortgage and groceries.
“At the end of the day, they are all brain diseases,” Ferguson said.
Missing money and disappearing items that end up in the pawn shop can be strong indications that gambling has moved from recreation to problem, said Mary Greer, executive director of the Mississippi Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling.
Rationalizing gambling is a significant red flag, Vail said. People with gambling problems will try to justify their actions saying things like “I’ll stop when I win it back,” or “If I win, it will solve all my problems.”
Borrowing money to buy lottery tickets or scratch off games is a sign of serious trouble. People with compulsive gambling problems often become irritable and restless if they try to stop. Priorities shift in unhealthy ways.
“They choose gambling over family time and family outings,” said Tupelo licensed professional counselor Chip Peterson of Fair Park Counseling.
Families and friends usually notice there’s a problem first.
“It can create family stress and strife,” Ferguson said. “It often happens before the gambler starts feeling the consequences.”
There are evidence-based tracks to treat compulsive gamblers and specific 12-step groups like Gamblers Anonymous. While there is a lot of overlap with treatment for substance abuse, it is typically recommended that people with gambling problems seek out specialized treatment.
“It’s more evidence-based for gambling,” Peterson said. “If they are with other compulsive gamblers (who are seeking treatment), they are able to relate more.”
The Mississippi Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling maintains a hotline for people who think they or a loved one has a gambling addiction. It also has a certification program for health care professionals, based on the accepted training and treatment procedures adopted by other states and the National Council on Problem Gambling. Counseling through the hotline (888) 777-9696 is free.
As with treatment for other addictions, family support and education are also an important part of treatment for compulsive gambling.
“We’ve found that to be fairly beneficial,” Peterson said.