NCAA betting can be trigger for those addicted to gambling

Counseling centers are busy during March Madness
NCAA betting can be trigger for those addicted to gambling

NCAA tournament play is underway, and even though sports gambling isn’t legal, millions of Americans routinely bet money on college basketball games this time of year.

But as basketball fans fill out their brackets and flock to bars, area counseling centers are also extra busy this month, helping people fight gambling addiction. An estimated 70 million Americans will fill out tournament brackets this March, and according to the American Gaming Association, will wager $9 billion during the three-week-long tournament.

What seems like fun to some, can be triggering for others.

Here in Wisconsin, March is one of the most difficult months for people battling gambling addiction. Coming off a long winter can negatively impact people’s moods, and heading into a competitive March Madness betting season doesn’t help.

It can be extraordinarily difficult for people like Brian, a Madison-native, who’s currently in treatment at Connections Counseling in town. Brian battled substance abuse and gambling addictions for 25 years. He is now more than a year sober, but says every day is still a struggle.

At his worst, he blew $100,000 over the course of six years.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Brian would recreationally gamble fifty dollars on his lunch break. That eventually escalated to $100, then thousands, until he spiraled out of control.

“It progressed from just a few jackpots that really hit that pleasure point, where it’s like, ‘Oh God, I got to get that feeling again.’ From there, it progressed to an obsession. I absolutely couldn’t stop,” said Brian, whose last name News 3 is not using to respect his privacy.

Brian said, like most addictions, realizing he had a problem was step one and one of the most difficult parts. Understanding addiction has been one of the most beneficial parts of his recovery process.

Brian’s counselor, Shelly Dutch, director of Connections Counseling, said that regardless of whether or not Wisconsin teams are in the tournament, this time of year is tough for compulsive gamblers.

“It really doesn’t matter if your team’s playing,” Dutch said. “It’s more about the money and the power and the feeling they get from gambling.”

Brian warns that people should be careful throwing their money in office pools, no matter how small the pot. “It’s just those few times where you think you’re going to win and you get that rush of adrenaline like, ‘Oh I’m still gonna win, I’m still in the pool,” and for five dollars they get all these certain rushes through their brackets that can really catch up to you in the longrun,” Brian said. “You may find yourself at the end of March Madness seeking out those pleasures again.”

For people living in Madison, there are a variety of places to get help. UW-Health offers mental health services, as does Connections Counseling. Treatment is covered by insurance, but if you don’t have insurance, you can still get treatment. A local non-profit, the Recovery Foundation, gives financial assistance to people who want and need treatment, but can’t afford it. They don’t want money to be a hurdle in getting help.

The NCAA opposes all forms of gambling in connection with college sports, going so far as to define gambling in its official policy as “putting something at risk… such as an entry fee or wager… in return for the opportunity to win something.”