Gambling addiction on the rise among US military

Gambling addiction on the rise among US military

Veterans Affairs Canada sounds alarm on gambling addiction

Gambling addiction is on the rise in the United States, with growing concerns among some of our most vulnerable communities, such as college students or those of lower socioeconomic status. However, a recent study conducted by Rutgers University found that even U.S. military members are not immune to gambling addiction. The study found that active-duty military members are nearly twice as likely to be addicted to gambling, which the VA (Veterans Affairs) has warned could pose a threat to the country’s national security.

According to the most recent data collected by the National Council on Problem Gambling, approximately 56,000 service members meet the criteria for a gambling addiction diagnosis. The VA reported that gambling addiction diagnoses among active-duty military and veterans are skyrocketing, with more cases diagnosed in the first half of 2024 than in all of 2022.

Following the VA’s findings, U.S. lawmakers are starting to sound the alarm. In the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., introduced an amendment to prevent the military from using slot machines on any base. However, the measure was not retained in the final version of this year’s NDAA.

The rise of gambling addiction in the military

While the legalization of sports betting in 2018 sparked fears of an emerging gambling addiction crisis, this long-standing institutional problem within the U.S. military dates back decades.

“All of a sudden, we started seeing a lot of people with gambling problems calling and asking for help, usually within a year or two of the time the program expanded,” said Heather Chapman, a clinical psychologist and director of the national gambling treatment program for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2017, the Defense Department operated more than 3,100 slot machines at U.S. military installations in a dozen foreign countries, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. The machines generate more than $100 million in revenue annually and are considered a “morale booster” for service members, along with activities like golf, libraries and other entertainment.

In the United States, slot machines are banned on military bases. However, many bases are located near casinos. Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of the largest military bases in the country located in Washington state, is located within 20 minutes of seven different casinos.

“It’s not terribly surprising, because with increased accessibility and availability, we tend to see an increase in unhealthy engagements,” said Dominick DePhilippis, national deputy director for mental health for substance use disorders for the VA.

A VA study found that military members are more vulnerable to gambling disorder than civilians and may be reluctant to self-report due to fear of losing their security clearance or the stigma associated with gambling problems.

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Gambling addiction isn’t the only problem facing military personnel

Although concerns about gambling addiction are a relatively new phenomenon, active-duty military members and veterans have long been at greater risk for other addictions, including alcohol and other substances.

Those who serve or have served in the military face challenges and situations that the general population does not experience. These include traumatic combat experiences, severe chronic pain from combat or service-related injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and reintegration into civilian life. All of these can make turning to drugs or alcohol an easy choice for many.

While not all military personnel struggle with substance abuse, excessive drinking is a common problem among active-duty military personnel. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, approximately 43 percent of active-duty military personnel engage in binge drinking, with most of them between the ages of 17 and 25. Additionally, nearly 70 percent of binge drinkers are classified as “heavy” drinkers in general.

Active-duty service members aren’t the only ones facing addiction. The largest study ever conducted on mental health risks in the U.S. military, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that many soldiers suffer from some form of mental illness, and that rates of many of these disorders are much higher among soldiers than among civilians.

Of the 5,000 active-duty military personnel surveyed, more than 25% had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and 11% met criteria for multiple illnesses. The study also found that nearly 15% of soldiers had thought about suicide, while 5.3% had planned suicide and 2.4% had actually made one or more attempts.

Recognizing the Signs of Gambling Addiction

Like drugs or alcohol, gambling can interact with the brain and cause the release of dopamine. This release activates the brain’s reward pathway, which over time can lead to the development of a gaming disorder. People with gambling addiction often describe a feeling of loss of control, feeling unable to avoid or stop gambling.

It can be difficult to spot the signs of a gambling addiction, especially for loved ones of active-duty service members. The nature of active duty means that many service members may return home, either on leave or after completing their tour, with trauma associated with their service. This trauma can manifest itself in many ways and can make it difficult to spot symptoms of other mental health disorders, such as addiction.

Although gambling addiction can differ from person to person, some of the most common symptoms to look out for include:

  • Needing to gamble with increasingly larger amounts of money
  • Unsuccessfully attempt to control, reduce or stop
  • Feeling restless or irritable when unable to play
  • Playing to escape problems or relieve negative emotions
  • Try to recover lost money by gambling more
  • Jeopardizing important relationships or opportunities because of gambling
  • Using theft or fraud to obtain gambling money

The first step to getting the help you or a loved one needs is noticing the signs of a gambling addiction. The next step is taking action. Fortunately, the VA has some of the best gambling addiction treatment services in the country.

Finding help during service

For active duty military members, finding help for a gambling addiction can be an extremely difficult task. On top of daily responsibilities, the fear of losing rank or being judged by others prevents many service members from getting the help they need.

Currently, the VA operates two residential treatment centers for gambling addiction and partners with civilian facilities across the country.

“We (VA) are kind of the mecca of gambling treatment,” said Heather Chapman, a clinical psychologist and director of the national gambling treatment program for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA is the largest integrated health care system in the United States. By contacting your specific military branch, you can connect with staff who can direct you to specific groups or resources that can help you. The most important thing to remember is to be open and honest with your superiors. The more honest you are up front, the better.

If you are interested in private treatment options for addiction, there are many options available. From inpatient treatment services to part-time outpatient rehabilitation, there are services that can help you overcome your gambling addiction. To learn more, contact a treatment provider today to begin your journey to a gambling-free life.