Problem Gambling Program Connecting Virginia Gamblers To The Help They Need

Written By Phil West on June 21, 2024
Hand on a shoulder signifies Virginia problem gambling program's successful work

Something incredible has happened in Virginia over the last few years: an increase of nearly 1,000% in calls to problem gambling helplines between 2019 and 2023.

But something else incredible is rising to meet it: a statewide effort involving several different entities in the commonwealth to help people with gambling disorders get the help they need.

Carolyn Hawley, director of the Virginia Partnership for Gaming and Health and an assistant professor at the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes the Partnership, officially formed in March 2022, as “the sole organization doing any type of advocacy or work with individuals with a gambling disorder.”

PlayVirginia spoke with Hawley about the efforts taken to meet Virginia responsible gambling efforts head on.

Partnership connects people with resources for problem gambling

According to a WTVF-FM article from earlier this week, calls to the state’s hotline increased 973% between 2019 and 2023. However, the Partnership has been working with state agencies to ramp up hotline resources and match problem gamblers with the treatment they need. The article notes,

“In the first quarter of this year, they had 166 referrals to the partnership, with over 50% of those people connecting with treatment. Comparable programs around the country usually see only 4 to 10% ever make it to treatment. And while a provider shortage exists, like [in] many other healthcare workforce fields, Hawley said the partnership has built a network of 105 providers across the state.

Perhaps most remarkable, 96% of the people that end up in treatment say they’ve stopped or decreased gambling after 6 months.”

The Partnership’s site notes that it’s a consortium of stakeholders committed to strengthening treatment and recovery services for individuals who need support for problem gambling. Members include the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, the Virginia Lottery, the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling, and the VCU Department of Rehabilitation Counseling/College of Health Professionals.

Increase in gambling options spurs more calls to hotline

Hawley told PlayVirginia that the state’s adoption of sports betting, its opening of three Virginia casinos with hundreds of slot machines, on-and-off legalization of skill games, and allowance for historical horse racing games to be played at Rosie’s Gaming Emporium and Colonial Downs have led to an increase in hotline calls. In part, this is because there are now more legal outlets for those with gambling disorders to make bets, but also because of state laws that have increased awareness for all gamblers that such hotlines exist.

“These are activities that are really repetitive; they’re fast-paced. And those are the types of things that increase that engagement, that learning that happens with the dopamine rush, and help fuel that addictive process,” Hawley said.

She continued, “On one hand, yes, I think as people have more opportunities to gamble, and that’s what we’ve seen, that more people are going to develop problems … who otherwise wouldn’t be gambling. And then there’s also … more awareness, at least from the casino and sports betting standpoint, because they do have to post our number.”

Drawbacks and benefits of gambling are both factors

But as concerned as Hawley is about problem gambling, she and her colleagues understand that there are some upsides to gambling and that it’s here to stay. She noted,

We really have to balance the economic benefits to the state, that part of the reason our legislature wants the legalization for gambling, and also, people want to gamble. You know, it’s very popular, so [we have] to balance that with [having] those education and awareness prevention programs, as well as these treatment programs, in place and keep building them in the state so that we can be proactive and help try to minimize problems with gambling.

The Virginia Problem Gambling Helpline, at 888-532-3500, is toll-free, confidential, and available 24/7 via phone, text, or chat.

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Phil West

Phil West is a longtime journalist based in Austin, Texas, whose bylines have appeared in The Daily Dot, Nautilus, Pro Soccer USA, Howler, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Chronicle. He has also written two books about soccer.

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