Toronto Counselers Research Treatment for Problem Gamblers
In Toronto, Good Shepherd Ministries homeless shelter on Queen Street East and researchers from the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital are working together to develop new treatments for problem gambling. Flora Matheson, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital, began working with the Good Shepherd Ministries when she discovered problem gambling among the homeless at the shelter.
The collaboration began when Dr. Matheson realized in 2013 that no data existed for Canadians who are both homeless and problem gamblers. Her research had shown high levels of problem gambling among the homeless in Toronto, but she needed help researching what kind of a correlation there was.
The St. Michael’s researcher said, “There wasn’t a lot of (research) out there, but to me it intuitively made sense there would be a link. I thought, ‘This looks like a hidden population and we’re not talking about it.'”
Matheson, who also is a scientist at Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, reached out to counselors at the Good Shepherd Ministries homeless shelter on Queen Street East, asking about their clients’ gambling habits. The staff had no real idea of the prevalence of gambling among those who sought services at the shelter. They knew a lot about alcohol and drug addiction, but next to nothing about gambling addiction.
Ontario Trillium Foundation Project
Thus, the first moves towards a research program were started. A year ago, St. Mike’s and Good Shepherd began work on a 3-year pilot program funded by Ontario Trillium Foundation, a provincial agency. Researchers and staff members would interview people at the shelter about their gaming habits. They talked to 264 people, most of whom were men.
To their amazement, they found that 35% of those surveyed had a problem with gambling. In the general population, the number ranges between 0.6% to 4% in areas — with most regions having a 2% to 3% prevalence among the gambling population.
35% Problem Gambling Rate among Homeless
Aklilu Wendaferew, who serves as Good Shepherd Ministries’ assistant executive director, said the revelation that 35% of the people they serve dealt with compulsive gambling was a revelation. Wendeferew said, “I was shocked. I was surprised the problem was so wide within the population we serve.”
“[Compulsive gambling] was an emerging need that needed to be addressed.”
Studying Problem Gamblers in Toronto
Since then, the joint research project has recruited 55 at-risk or in-need people to study their problem gambling in greater depth. The program includes people in individual or group counseling, as well as Gamblers Anonymous. To qualify, someone has to have their housing at risk due to problem gambling or they need to have lost their home for the same reasons.
The object of Dr. Matheson and her colleagues is to study the problem, then develop treatments to help the Canadian homeless cope with their gambling habits and other addictive behavior. St. Michael’s and Good Shepherd believe they can get a significant number of their charges on the path to recovery. The fact many are more willing to discuss their addictions (than the general population) is a major help to their research.
Jason Smith: Helped by St. Michael’s and Good Shepherd
Jason Smith, a former homeless man who now lives in Broadview and Danforth area, already has been helped by the program. Jason Smith said he used to buy scratch-off cards as early as 16, though his real problem with gambling came in his mid-20s, when he began playing at casinos.
Smith said it was the allure of free drinks and bright lights that kept taking him back to the casino. The 31-year old told The Star’s Isabel Teontonio, “I’d hear people winning and think it can be me. I’d work all day for eight hours and then be broke in two hours.”
What Is Gambler’s Fallacy?
Part of treatment is education about gambling odds to combat gambler’s fallacy. Gambler’s fallacy in specific involves the common sense understanding of the “law of averages”, which is a casino myth. In a wider sense, gambler’s fallacy involves the idea that one’s luck is about to change, a big jackpot is just around the corner, or an individual is going to be the one to win the grand prize.
Counselors at Good Shepherd inform problem gamblers of the odds of the games they play. For instance, they discuss the odds of playing the lottery, such as the fact that the odds of winning the Lotto Max grand prize is over 1-in-28 million.
Winning Casino Sessions and Big Payouts
Gamblers face social factors, too. Anecdotal evidence also misinforms a gambler about the odds. People are prone to discuss their winning sessions at a casino, while ignoring or glossing over their losing sessions. Few gamblers are prone to tell a story of the really bad losing session they had at the casino last week. The prefer to tell about the big pots or jackpots they won.
That reinforces in the mind of other gamblers that the casino can be beat. Casinos win even win they lose, because winning gamblers act as free advertisement. That is why casinos always publicize when they pay out a big progressive slots jackpots.
Dopamine Receptors in the Brain
Problem gamblers face several factors that work against them. Researchers say that gambling triggers Dopamine, which affects the pleasure centers in the human brain. It is pleasurable to bet real money. Gambling is an escape from boredom or everyday worries, too, much like alcohol, illicit drugs, or rampant shopping can be.
Jason Smith explained the thought process behind addiction. He said, “It’s all an escape — gambling, drugs, alcohol. It was all to get me out of myself. I didn’t like myself….When you have nowhere to go, you’re always welcome at a casino, so long as you have money.”
Why Do People Get Addicted to Gambling?
Researchers at the Toronto homeless shelter said that gambling addiction is more stigmatized than substance abuse. People have known that alcohol and drugs create physical addiction, so eliminating the substance has a physical element. Not knowing that brain chemistry has a role in gambling addiction, those same people might wonder why a gambling addict cannot simply stop gambling.
Beyond physical reinforcement of the behavior, most forms of addiction have a strong psychological component. The beginning stages of addiction can be traced to a need for an adrenaline rush or an escape mechanism — or both. Many people need the escape Jason Smith described, so they do not ruminate on their disappointments or failures. Others get bored with the workaday hum-drum of life, so they need excitement and entertainment.
Gambling provides that, though people who need constant stimulation can fall into a pattern of compulsive gambling. Beyond that, the same psychological component that drives one to addictive behavior in the first place can have a powerful hold, long after any physical symptoms exist.
As Jason Smith said, “You have to be uncomfortable, until it gets comfortable. The lows aren’t as low. And the highs aren’t as high — but they’re longer lasting.”