In the first six months of 2021, individuals requesting help for gambling-related problems made 394 phone calls to the Virginia Problem Gambling Helpline. That compares to 335 intakes in all of 2020, and 311 intakes in 2019 — meaning the Commonwealth is seeing a significant increase in call volume made by individuals with gambling problems or family members who are concerned for them.
The increase in help-seeking phone calls corresponds with the expansion of gambling availability within the Commonwealth. Data from other states suggests that when gambling expands, rates of problem gambling tend to rise, although these often level off. Most importantly, it signifies an urgency need to grow a network of professionals to treat this rising need.
Greater awareness and publication of the helpline phone number could be contributing to the increase in call volume. More awareness of this problem- gambling resource is definitely needed and applauded.
But in the estimation of the Virginia Council of Problem Gambling, the data also showcases the association between the expansion of gambling opportunities and the number of people seeking help for their gambling. Historically, we have seen the Virginia Lottery proactively expand its responsible gambling efforts. As casino operators progress with developments in Virginia, it is now imperative for all stakeholders to become engaged in a comprehensive gambling prevention and mitigation program. The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is tasked with developing plans for problem gambling services. This is a positive step in the right direction.
When analyzed, the data also shows changes in the past year in the most common types of gambling people played. In 2021 to date, the largest amount of intake calls included, respectively: callers playing the lottery (21%), video terminals in convenience stores and bars, known to many as “skill games” (18%), slot machines at casino/track, including historical horse racing (18%) and sports wagering (12%). In 2020, the data showed that playing the lottery made up 25% of the calls, video terminals represented 22%, slot machines 17% and sports wagering 5%.
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region accounted for the highest number of intakes: 30% of callers contacting the problem gambling helpline. Northern Virginia (25%) and Central Virginia (24%) were not far behind.
Virginians in crisis as a result of their gambling need access to treatment and recovery services. A state that legalizes, operates and regulates gambling has an economic and ethical obligation to prevent and treat gambling problems among its citizens, especially veterans, seniors and members of racial and ethnic minority groups who are most vulnerable to addiction.
The Council maintains a neutral stance on gambling. It operates the state’s problem gambling helpline, which is funded by the Virginia Lottery. It offers a phone number, live chat and text support at: 1 (888) 532-3500. To learn more, visit: www.vacpg.org.
Carolyn Hawley, Ph.D., is president of the Virginia Council of Problem Gambling.