From “Across Women’s Lifespans: How Women, Trauma and Gambling Intersect”,
The Connecticut Women’s Consortium, November 1, 2018

The State of Connecticut opened the Compulsive Gamblers’ Treatment Program in 1980, establishing the oldest, continually run, state sponsored gambling treatment program in the U.S. By 1990, the “Gambling Program” was treating a caseload of 50 gamblers, all men; white, Jewish, Italian and Catholic horse players.  By 2000, census had expanded to 900, with a third of clients now women, predominantly middle aged slot machine players.

It was the opening of, at that time, the two largest casinos in the world that drove this dramatic shift. Rising from fields in rural southeastern Connecticut, Foxwoods opened in 1992 and Mohegan Sun followed in 1996.  In those days, women were relatively new to gambling as compared to men, who would typically gamble in their youth and throughout their lives.

It was also more typical of men to be “action” gamblers— to play games of skill for bets, wager money on cards like poker and blackjack, sports, and horse and dog races—gambling activities that required strategy, forethought, some knowledge of the game itself. Women, however, typically did not have that same history of participating in gambling activities throughout their younger years. When the new casinos in Connecticut opened, slot machines offered the excitement of gambling without the need for knowledge or skill. The 24 hour availability, well-appointed and spacious surroundings, visible security, ample parking and other amenities all added to the allure.  Women now had a new and viable entertainment option.

Slot machines were introduced when Las Vegas casinos first opened in the early 1930’s, and were considered by management to be exclusively for women; for “the wives”, to keep them entertained while their husbands gambled.  (Over the years, technological advances have dramatically altered the slots landscape and increased the speed of play, resulting in changes in brain chemistry akin to those related to addiction.) The ability to immerse in  endless repetition of pulling the lever or pushing a button led to the term “escape gambling”, characterized by “zoning out”, a hyper focus on the activity to the exclusion of all else.

This immersion, for many women, caused “dissociation”, similar to the detachment experienced when suffering trauma or abuse; that feeling of being apart from oneself, observing the self under distress from afar.  Limitless play time, helpful personal hosts and easy access to ATMs and credit were among the factors feeding the rapid growth of women casino patrons. Some of these women found themselves “zoning out”, even “blacking out”, not able to account for time and money spent at the slot machines.  Some of these women got into serious financial trouble. Some even committed crimes to fund their gambling and added arrest and incarceration to their troubles.

Compounding the impact of money troubles were the shame and stigma that go hand-in-hand with crossing that invisible line between gambling for fun and gambling as a compulsion: gambling for its own sake, to stay “in action”. Reaching out for help could result in a harsh judgmental reception from family and friends:   What’s wrong with you?  Can’t you manage your money better? How could you have let this happen? Attending a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in those days was fraught with its’ own trauma for a vulnerable woman walking into the man’s world of GA, where there was no appreciation one could have an addiction to a slot machine, and no guidelines or boundaries on how to help a woman in distress. Entering treatment was a gamble of its’ own, for outside of the state sponsored “Bettor Choice” gambling treatment network, therapists were unaware of the unique needs and challenges faced by clients with gambling problems.

Sometimes it was best for the women to keep it hidden and hope for the best, keep trying for one last “big win” to save the day.

Fortunately, a couple of decades later, there has been progress in the understanding and treatment of women with gambling problems.  Here in Connecticut, there are a handful of GA rooms known to welcome women and their specific needs.  There is a growing awareness in the substance abuse and mental health treatment systems that (1) gambling often co-occurs with depression, anxiety and ATOD use, and (2) to screen for gambling is good policy.

Unaddressed gambling problems are often the cause for relapse in treatment and recidivism in the criminal justice system. Through the Disordered Gambling Integration Project (DiGIn), PGS offers training to eligible agencies to become “gambling informed”, just as agencies have become “gender informed” and “trauma informed” in recent years.

Joint community awareness ventures supported by partnerships of prevention and treatment professionals, people in recovery, the gambling industry and community stakeholders, such as The Connecticut Women’s Project (now re-branded as G-FACT, Gambling Awareness for All Connecticut) help to raise awareness.  A revised protocol for Problem Gambling Helpline callers, the community-based Congregation Assistance/Community Awareness Program, and an innovative network of Regional Gambling Awareness Teams throughout Connecticut support the continued need to “have the conversation”.

With the persistent expansion of legalized gambling, it is more important than ever that we become aware of gambling as a risky activity that can become an addiction for some, work to eliminate the stigma surrounding women—and other underserved populations— who have gambling problems through awareness and education, and ensure these people are connected with the professional and peer support that is so needed to address this complex and ever evolving issue.

Susan D. McLaughlin, M.P.A., C.P.S., Prevention Services Coordinator
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