March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. When done responsibly, gambling can provide entertainment for adults – especially this month as more than 100 million people are expected to watch March Madness. You may even be one of the 70 million people who are planning to fill out a bracket. Billions of dollars (yes billions with a B) will be wagered on this sporting event alone, and with this, the cycle of problem gambling continues and intensifies.
Here in Ohio, estimates suggest that 900,000 adult Ohioans are at-risk for problem gambling. Jess Stewart of Portage County took any opportunity to gamble. It all started at the age of six when he would accompany his father on trips to the racetrack. The introduction to gambling, coupled with family activities such as playing bingo and cards, and being highly competitive in nature, all were contributing factors to paving a long, dark road ahead.
The loss of his mother when he was 17 years old sent Jess into a depression – an underlying mental health condition that went unidentified and untreated.
“As an emotional release, I started going to the racetrack,” said Jess. “At first, it was once a week, then I started spending more and more time there.”
It quickly spiraled into lying about where he was and what he was doing. Jess maxed out credit cards, went on sporadic casino trips, and eventually turned to theft to get the money he needed to gamble. The actions resulted in a three-year prison sentence.
Initially, he thought going to prison could be an opportunity to separate himself from the things that enabled his addiction. “Sadly, there was just as much gambling in prison as there was outside,” said Jess. Whether it was playing cards, dice, or fantasy sports, inmates would use their commissary credit as a source for their betting.
Jess endured years on a tumultuous rollercoaster ride filled with highs of improvement, lows of relapsing, and even lower lows when he ultimately contemplated suicide. For Jess, as for many other recovering problem gamblers, admitting and accepting he had a problem was a big hurdle.
“It was partly ego and partly addiction,” he said. “People think someone with a compulsive gambling disorder can just turn it off like a light switch. It doesn’t get the attention for treatment like someone with a substance abuse problem would.”
Project Turnabout in Minnesota, one of five in-patient treatment facilities in the U.S., was Jess’s way out.
Fast forward through a 30-day stint of in-patient treatment, getting involved in Gamblers Anonymous and other helpful programs and resources, and Jess was able to see a new light. “I had a whole new mindset. I learned what my triggers were, and I was able to piece it all together.”
Today, with nearly five years as a recovering gambler, Jess is a passionate advocate. He’ll be presenting “Roles of Recovery Advocates” at the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio’s (PGNO) and Ohio for Responsible Gambling conference on March 25 and plans to serve on the PGNO Board in the spring. If there’s something Jess can do now to help someone who was in the same shoes he wore as a problem gambler, he’ll do it.
“I want to do everything I can to help others,” said Jess. “I have a moral obligation. I want to let people know that this disease is insidious. It does not discriminate.”
The time is now to become knowledgeable of the scope and intensity of this issue among Ohioans. The time is now to raise public awareness of responsible gambling practices, as well as the dangers and risks involved with problem gambling. For us at Ohio for Responsible Gambling, any time is the right time to educate every Ohioan about an issue that could impact them or someone they love.
If you or someone you know may have an issue with problem gambling, please visit our website at www.BeforeYouBet.org for free resources and information. You can also call the Problem Gambling Helpline (1-800-589-9966), or text “4hope” to 741741 to find free, confidential resources in your area.