Sports Betting, Problem Gambling, And Suicide: Are Operators Doing Enough?

With the explosion of online sports betting, American operators need to be part of the solution, experts say
suicide ribbon

Researchers have consistently found that problem gamblers have a higher suicide rate than virtually any other group with addictive behavior.

“If you’re experiencing gambling behaviors problematically, your risk of thinking about suicide and attempting suicide are hugely elevated, and that can’t all be explained by other things,” said Heather Wardle of the University of Glasgow, one of the UK’s leading problem gambling researchers. “There is a mechanism in there for gambling to specifically heighten these things. We don’t know exactly how this works, but there is a role that cannot be diminished.”

In short: While research has shown a link between problem gambling and suicidal ideation, no one has yet cracked the code as to what, exactly, is going on in the mind of someone who believes they have reached a point of no return.

“We specifically are looking to see if there is something else that explains this, like substance abuse, or mental health disorders, or impulsivity, or anything that kind of explains this relationship,” Wardle said. “But even when you take those things into account, the relationship between problem gambling and suicide sits and it’s really strong. We’ve got this kind of statistical evidence, but also have this really strong network of people affected by gambling-related suicides, essentially the parents of — and it’s usually — young men. We have the empirical statistical evidence and the lived experience evidence.”

It’s worth noting Wardle has based her studies in England, where online, legalized sports betting (and casino play) has been going on for decades. Consider it a canary in the coal mine, as it were, for the American market.

But even in England, where the government is currently taking a hard look at stricter gambling regulations, Wardle believes the operators aren’t doing enough to help stem the issue of suicide.

“It’s not being taken seriously enough by the operators here, and I’m sure it’s not being taken seriously enough in America,” Wardle told US Bets.

Big problem, small absolute numbers

“How big a problem is it? We know that people with severe gambling problems — and I want to stress severe, not all problem gamblers — have among the highest rates of suicidal behavior among any of the addictive disorders,” said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “That’s fairly nuanced and caveated — the studies are all over the place — but the point is someone with a severe gambling problem is at a much higher risk for suicidal behavior than someone with a severe alcohol or drug problem, or severe depression, or any number of things.”

Whyte has been in charge of the NCPG for nearly a quarter century, and suicide prevention has always been something it has stressed to operators of all stripes.

“It is, unfortunately, probably likely in a career of a customer service person in this industry, if you stay long enough, you will likely come across a customer who has suicidal ideation,” Whyte said. “I’ve never trained a group of employees where at least one person hasn’t come across a suicidal problem gambler. I don’t want to overstate the frequency, but among the one percent of the population that has a severe gambling problem, of that one percent they are disproportionately represented in your crisis cases.”

Of course, with more and more states legalizing online sports betting (and, in some cases, online casinos), the sheer number of problem gamblers might be on the rise.

“Will online sports betting increase the risk of suicidal behaviors? There’s no research, so we don’t know, but our surveys show a 30 percent increase in risk for gambling problems between 2018 and 2021, and much of that risk is a cocktail of online sports betting plus pandemic plus young males, who are at higher risk in general,” Whyte said. “A lot of factors cluster together. Without seeing data either way, while we think risk for gambling problems is increasing, I don’t think suicide risk is increasing disproportionately.”

American Gaming Association responds

One key question here is what, exactly, are the operators doing about it? What kind of training are their employees going through? How far up the ladder does it go? How does an operator know when it’s time to step in and offer help?

Repeated calls and emails to various operators on this subject were not returned, but Cait DeBaun, the vice president of strategic communications and responsibility for the American Gaming Association, did respond to the request.

Responsible gaming is our industry’s highest priority,” DeBaun wrote in an email. “Online gaming provides customers with robust tools to wager responsibly as players can set limits on the time they spend gaming, individual wager amounts, and how much they deposit. This puts customers in control of their play while providing operators more insight into player behavior to engage with anyone who may need a break.

“While most players enjoy gambling as a form of entertainment, we recognize that’s not the case for everyone and are committed to providing support for problem gambling research and resources. This work has never been more well-funded than it is today, and the vast majority comes from the hundreds of millions of dollars gaming companies invest annually.

 “The mental health impacts of gambling disorder are serious, and providing effective support and treatment for individuals with a gambling problem is foundational to the long-term sustainability of the industry.”

NCPG urges training for all

Every gaming employee should be trained, not just the customer-facing ones,” Whyte said. “If you’re in the gambling business, every one of your employees should be trained — I don’t care if they’re housekeeping — on responsible gambling, including what to say and what to do if there’s a potentially suicidal problem gambler. Customer-facing employees need more extensive training, some basic ‘what do you say, what do you do,’ and supervisors and managers and others need an even more intensive course.”

Whyte said he’s not privy to what the operators expect of their employees, but he did note that Caesars has an “ambassador program” in which there is always one person on property (or on call) who has received at least 12 to 16 hours of training on what to do if faced with a suicidal customer. 

Whyte also said he knows many UK operators are using AI technology to look at the language customers are using in their chats with customer service agents in an effort to detect patterns of potentially harmful discussion, though he doesn’t know if any American operators are using the technology.

And while Whyte believes more should be done behind the scenes when it comes to suicidal ideation among problem gamblers, he doesn’t suggest the messaging should be front and center for all customers.

“Probably not as a general public message,” he said. “The number of severe problem gamblers is low. For over 99 percent of your audience, it’s not an appropriate message. But for customers who have spent hundreds of thousands dollars, or who have a high frequency of play, or are raising other warning flags, then yes, of course the operators should be keeping a close eye. The absolute numbers are so small, so it’s a more nuanced message, but it’s an absolutely appropriate message for customers who have massive, heavy gambling engagement.”

Ohio watches, waits

“I do think the operators should consider messaging that is sensitive,” said Amanda Blackford, the director of operations and problem gambling services for the Ohio Casino Control Commission. “I think they should work with specialists on something like this. It’s a hard issue to tackle, hard to raise awareness and market in a way that’s sensitive to those who actually have the issue. The language has to be carefully crafted by people who work with those populations.”

Blackford is at an interesting stage in the rise of legalized sports betting in America, as Ohio – the seventh-most populous state – will be going live with its product on Jan. 1, 2023, nearly five years after PASPA was struck down. And so, in crafting what the problem gambling response can and should be, Blackford and her team have had the luxury of seeing it play out in other states.

And not everything she’s seen has been on point.

“I don’t want to call any states out, but I think there has been a rush to market, and in the rush to get things up and legalized a lot of states maybe have not put enough effort into the problem gambling side of things,” Blackford said. “I think overall we haven’t seen enough done to address this, and I certainly hope this is something that will change.”

In Ohio, problem gambling advocates have been busy putting together awareness campaigns. Not just for potential problem gamblers, but also for the sports betting industry at large.

“We’ve currently been working on our awareness campaign, ‘Get set before you bet,’ working on a mobile sports betting toolkit,” Blackford said. “And suicide and suicide ideation is an issue we’re trying to get in front of. Whether you’re talking about casino betting or sports betting, you can use that material. We will make it available to operators, sharing it with them so they have that messaging that has been developed through focus groups and groups that are dealing with this issue.

“We’re crafting messaging now that will be available to operators. It’s not in our rules or statutes that they have to use that language, but we’re hoping through a collaborative effort that they’ll feel comfortable doing that.”

Change in the air?

For researchers like Wardle, all the talk of responsible gambling by the industry is for naught unless the companies start thinking long and hard about their business practices. Again, she’s coming at this from the UK perspective, but she notes American operators would be wise to take note.

“A lot of this comes down to the fundamental operating model,” she said. “It’s kind of a misnomer — because the advertising is everywhere — that you think everyone is gambling, but it’s actually a small proportion of people who actually engage in sports betting, or are playing the mobile casino products, and an even smaller proportion of people who the operators actually generate significant profits off, and it’s that group that tend to be the most harmed by their gambling. So you have this underlying economic model that profits from exploitation of those most harmed. 

“They could start thinking about what a long-term sustainable business model looks like,” Wardle continued. “And it might be, ‘I am prepared to accept shorter-term growth and lower profit to have a more sustainable gambling model going forward where we’re not having the kind of burnout of people who are experiencing harm,’ and thread it through all the business practices. What would the advertising and marketing look like if you were actually thinking about what was in the best interest of the consumer, instead of the best interest of the corporation?”

And while Wardle’s solution may be the “correct” one, advocates like Blackford know it probably won’t happen exactly that way.

In the interim, however …

“I think the burden has to be shared,” Blackford said. “I think the burden is that we as a state, and regulators and operators, simply need to do a better job of suicide awareness. Problem gambling has a suicide rate double that of any other addiction, and that’s not something that’s widely known.”

If you or someone you know is a problem gambler who may need help preventing suicide or suicide ideation, assistance is available by calling 1-800-GAMBLER or the new national suicide hotline at 988.

Photo: Shutterstock


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