Gambling with their lives

Gambling with their lives McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 5, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > April 5, 2001 > Gambling with their lives

Gambling with their lives

When it comes to gambling, the kids are definitely not all right.

Photo Professor Jeffrey Derevensky
PHOTO: Owen Egan

In response to a growing global crisis of compulsive gambling among youth, McGill is launching the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours.

The Centre will be headed by educational and counselling psychology professors Jeffrey Derevensky and Rina Gupta, who have been studying the phenomenon of youth gambling since the mid-1990s, while providing therapy for some of their research subjects. Researchers affiliated with the centre will examine the reasons why young people are two to four times more likely than adults to develop a gambling problem, and will work on devising effective treatment and prevention strategies.

"This is the only centre anywhere in the world that will focus on youth gambling and other risk-taking behaviour," says Derevensky. He feels that the time is right, because "more and more researchers in recent years have been looking at the problem of youth gambling, which is growing on a worldwide scale."

Derevensky has estimated that in North America, four to eight per cent of adolescents have a serious gambling problem, and that another 10 to 15 per cent are at risk. But he says that those figures may be replicated all over the world, because of an explosion of new casinos worldwide, coupled with the proliferation of video poker and internet gambling.

"Most of the research on youth has been done in the area of prevalence; when we got into this field, we noted that prevalence rates are fairly consistent, so we wanted to look at the risk factors. Some of those factors include parents who gamble, and the availability of gambling, especially while you are growing up. Simply being a male is a risk factor, and so is having poor coping strategies. This is the kind of information needed to develop empirically based prevention programs."

Derevensky and Gupta have become world renowned for their pioneering research and clinical work on youth gambling; their research was the basis for the recent Quebec law forbidding lottery sales to anyone under 18. Derevensky hopes that the high profile that comes with an international research centre will help increase awareness about youth gambling, which too many people, including parents, still see as harmless fun.

"We go into schools and try to teach students that gambling is dangerous and potentially addictive, just like drugs or alcohol. We also try to teach them that it depends on luck and not on skill, so they won't equate it with video games... The students are very receptive to our message, because they all seem to know someone who is in trouble because of gambling. The resistance we get is mostly from educators and parents. Some schools don't want us to come to class to talk about gambling because they don't see the point."

The centre's membership will include professors at McGill, Université de Montréal and the Harvard University Medical School.

One member, social work professor Robin Wright, says that youth gambling is a problem which extends the traditional view of "at risk" youth. When she was a social worker in Ontario, that meant drugs, alcohol, maybe violence, and getting involved in gangs. It did not mean gambling.

"I used to work in children`s residential services, working with people from five to 25 who were considered at risk. That term meant that they were antisocial, maybe they came from families with a high level of criminal behavior or substance abuse... Gambling problems among youth were very marginal back then, but over the past decade, it is becoming clear that people between the ages of 10 and 19 are getting heavily involved with gambling, and the risk is that it will become a serious problem."

Wright says that the scientific literature does suggest a link between gambling and other high-risk behaviour, as the centre's name indicates.

"In my practice and my research, my concern has been for youth who exhibit antisocial behaviour; problem gambling would fall under that category. At the centre, we will be trying to determine how the problem of excessive youth gambling is associated with other risk factors like delinquency and crime, relationship problems, and poor academic performance."

Another research angle will be looking at parallels between compulsive gambling and other kinds of addictions. Psychology professor Robert Pihl, another member of the centre, is collaborating with Derevensky and Gupta on a study to look at the relationship between gambling behaviour and the effects of alcohol.

"The basic assumption we are working with is that there is a similarity in risk factors for the two behaviours. There are similar biological mechanisms -- some of which can be inherited -- which are involved in both addictions.

"In the case of alcohol, we have identified a number of populations who respond differently to the drug than those who don't develop problems. For example, for some, alcohol has an energizing effect, by activating certain neurotransmitters in the brain. For others, the drug has a medicating effect, in terms of reducing levels of stress and anxiety. So there are two populations at risk for different reasons. We are looking at whether gambling has similar effects on people who become compulsive gamblers."

Pihl says that psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to recognize compulsive gambling as an addiction in the same sense as alcoholism and drug addiction.

"According to the criteria for defining substance dependence in the current DSM4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association), people with gambling problems would be defined as substance-dependent, even though they aren't consuming any substance. Two of those criteria are physiological: withdrawal and tolerance. But even problem gamblers talk about needing to gamble more and more, and about withdrawal symptoms, at least psychological ones, when they stop gambling."

The centre is funded mostly by a $2.5 million grant from Loto-Québec, the crown corporation that runs all legal gambling in Quebec, including lotteries, video lottery terminals and three casinos. Loto-Québec has funded Derevensky's research and treatment of problem gamblers since the beginning, but some McGill academics raised objections at a recent Senate meeting before the centre was officially approved last month.

Political science professor Sam Noumoff said that "the excellence of the project is demeaned by the source of the funds... It could seem that Loto-Québec is using the university as a form of sanitization."

Law professor Richard Janda supported Noumoff's position, saying that "it's a question of academic independence. Research must not be done to regain funding, and that's where the taint might arise."

But Dean of Education Ratna Ghosh insisted the funds had no strings attached to them and the centre intends to secure funding from other sources.

In the end, Senate approved the creation of the centre in a near-unanimous vote.

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