Inside the life of a gambling help line worker

As a record 31.5 million Americans get ready to bet about $8 billion on the Super Bowl, a patchwork system of problem gambling help lines is there in case anybody decides they need help. Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

KAITLIN BROWN'S WORK cellphone has an obscenely loud ringtone, and when it goes off during the day, it routinely startles her and her 2-year-old daughter, Emilia. The phone is always there -- on the counter in front of her, on the couch beside her, even on the changing table if there's a new diaper necessary.

In early December, her phone rings and shows a caller ID that sends her rushing to pick up as soon as humanly possible. "CCPG HELPLINE," it says.

Brown, 36, is the exact person you want answering a problem gambling help line. A licensed counselor for drug, alcohol and gambling addiction, she's a 14-year veteran working in addiction services, including the past five at the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. As a little girl, she attended 12-step meetings with her dad as he tried to get sober (he did), and has seen the ravages of addiction elsewhere in her family, too. She's hesitant to talk about herself, but she has the perfect blend of empathy and fierceness to deal with people struggling with addiction.

The incoming call is from someone who reached out to Connecticut's version of what many states now have, a toll-free help line for people who think they might have a gambling problem. Like other states that have rushed to legalize sports betting since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban in May 2018, Connecticut is in the middle of giant spike in both the volume of calls and the number of callers who specifically mention sports gambling as a part of their problem.

On this December day, Brown grabs her phone and answers with her standard greeting: "Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling help line. Can I help you?"

The man gives his name -- Brown can't provide personal information, so let's call him Mike -- and says he's in his early 20s. Last October, as soon as Connecticut legalized sports gambling, Mike downloaded the FanDuel app and started betting ... and now he says he can't stop. He says it's just so easy now, 10 seconds away on his phone. He blew through thousands of dollars that his parents thought were going toward college. The man, like so many of the younger callers Brown talks to these days, says he dabbles in cryptocurrency and day trading, too.

"I can't tell my parents about any of this," he says. "I can't talk to anybody about it. What do I do?"

Brown listens to Mike explain his situation, then she begins running through a checklist that she helped create for Connecticut. She first asks if he is considering harming himself or someone else. Compared with other addictions, studies have shown that problem gamblers are much more likely to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts.

"No," Mike says.

Then she works her way through options. Her main goal isn't to diagnose, it's to funnel people toward the right next step. Sometimes people want help locating a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. Sometimes people are desperate to get sent to treatment, which Brown can often do within 24 hours or so. Sometimes callers aren't gamblers themselves but are worried about a friend or loved one who might have a problem. Data collected by CCPG shows that the average problem gambler directly impacts nine other people.

Mike is one of the many callers who is contemplating, for the first time, whether he might have a gambling problem. Brown gets a few calls a week like this, where the person on the other end has never said that out loud to another person.

Help line callers often decline to give their name, then proceed to tell the most intimate, truthful version of their life story that they've ever put into words. Gambling is often tricky for others to see and is considered a hidden addiction -- you can't smell sports betting on someone's breath or find them passed out on the bathroom floor from a gambling overdose. In studies, problem gamblers report much higher rates of feeling like they're living secret lives and having more shame than with other addictions.

That's the case with Mike. He says he's scared, and he asks questions about whether he might have a problem. Callers regularly want someone on the other end of the line to give them an answer about whether they do or do not have a problem. But gambling counselors like Brown shy away from that. There are a few cardinal rules that the problem gambling councils adhere to. One is that the councils take no position, for or against, gambling itself. And secondly, they won't declare you an addict. "I never tell somebody they have a gambling problem," she says. "It's up to that person to decide if they have a problem."

Mike pushes for her opinion, so Brown sidesteps by mentioning some of the things that are most common to problem gambling. Is it causing significant issues in your life? Do you have gambling debt? Do you set limits that you don't stick to? Is gambling fun and entertaining, or a compulsion that you become preoccupied with? She'll occasionally tell people to check out Gamblers Anonymous' 20-question survey, which covers some of the same topics and includes a statement that most problem gamblers answer yes to seven or more questions.

Mike listens intently, but he's mostly noncommittal. She asks if Mike wants to set up a session with a counselor, or if he's considering entering formal treatment.

"I don't think I need that," he says.

After she floats those options, Brown usually mentions Gamblers Anonymous as a possibility. "Want me to find a meeting near your house?" she asks him.

"Nah, I don't think so," he says. "You know what? I'm just going to delete the apps."

He doesn't want to go any further than that, so she winds down the call by giving him her direct number. Brown says many callers are just getting to the point of wanting help and not knowing how to start, so having a sympathetic, actual human being to call back later -- versus dialing the help line again -- has proven successful.

"If you change your mind and want to talk more, you can call me directly," she tells him.

Mike thanks her, and before he hangs up, he says, "This call really helped me. Thank you. I feel a little better now than I did when I called. I felt such shame and fear, and I've never told anybody the stuff I just told you. It really helped me to talk to someone who didn't judge me."

They say goodbye, and Brown is as happy as you can be doing her job. Maybe deleting the apps will work for Mike. Maybe it won't. The only thing she knows for sure is someone else will be calling soon.

OVER THE NEXT few months, gambling help line workers are anticipating two of their busiest times ever. First, the Super Bowl, where last year 23 million Americans bet about $4.5 billion, the highest totals for any single event in the country. Then, a month later, they expect an influx of calls around March Madness, which includes twice as many bettors and overall dollars wagered over the course of three weeks.

The U.S. is already deep in a gambling boom that the help lines and councils aren't equipped to deal with yet. The National Council for Problem Gambling cites studies showing that about 2.2% of American adults -- nearly 6 million people -- are susceptible to problem gambling, and that number doubles for people who regularly bet. In Connecticut, that means three CCPG employees are dealing with a population of 58,000 problem gamblers, with as many as 500,000 friends and loved ones in the direct path of those struggling addicts.

Calls to the help line have quadrupled since sports betting became legal, and the number of online chat requests went from 13,344 in 2021 to 13,143 in January 2022 alone. It's been a crushing surge, and Brown says she thinks the guardrails for problem gambling are about 40 years behind other addictions. "I thought it would be three, four, five years till we were seeing this level of people looking for help," Brown says. "But it took about six to eight weeks."

Gambling might seem different than substance abuse. But it has a very similar effect on the brain for those 20-million-plus Americans believed to be struggling with addiction; the American Psychiatric Association announced in 2013 that problem gambling belongs under the same umbrella of disorders as opiate or alcohol abuse. Experts stress that it's too soon to make broad declarations on the impact of legalized sports betting across the country, but early signs -- especially the enormous spike in help line calls -- show that gambling addiction may be every bit the public health danger as opiates or alcohol because of the stunning speed of its destructive path. The bottom often comes fast, with far-reaching consequences for family members.

A few weeks ago, Brown wasn't available to grab a help line call on a Monday morning, so it kicked to her boss, CCPG executive director Diana Goode. If Goode or communications director Paul Tarbox can't grab it, they have trained backup phone workers on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Somebody is always there.

The man on the other end of the line had a painful story that he needed somebody to hear. He hadn't gambled since 2004. He'd called the help line years ago and got set up on the state's self-exclusion lists. Connecticut has worked with its two casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, to allow people with a problem to ban themselves from the establishments. Something like 30% of help line calls are people inquiring about the self-exclusion lists.

But this man was one of the growing number of people calling because they know they have an issue with casinos and sportsbooks but have relapsed as technology has brought gambling closer to home. He'd seen such a steady stream of Facebook ads for FanDuel and DraftKings that eventually he couldn't resist one of the sizable "no risk," free money offers to sign up. He'd started gambling again and spent his life savings, all using his phone. The casino had come to him. He could bet with one swipe of his finger, and when he'd lose, he ended up chasing his losses with in-game bets. He bet over and over again, and in just a few weeks, everything was gone. He needed help.

Goode set him up with treatment options and hung up the phone. She'd done her job, and as she tells that story, she reiterates a common theme from the problem gambling treatment community: They don't want to ban gambling. The goal is to create a safety net at a rate commensurate with the deluge of ads. "We are not here to tell you how to spend your disposable income -- we're not the fun police," she says. "We just want to make sure that as gambling becomes easier and more accessible that safeguards are in place for people who gamble and run into trouble. And that's not true in Connecticut right now. We don't have the funding."

Funding is a thorny universal issue across the country. Most problem gambling councils are nonprofits funded by casinos, lotteries and sportsbooks. In nearly every one of the 33 state legislatures that have legalized sports gambling, the bills mandated the gambling operators themselves provide funding for problem gambling councils.

"It's been harder to work with state governments than the industry operators themselves," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Most people would think that their state governments are of course there to protect citizens. Frankly that hasn't been the case."

Whyte gives credit to FanDuel and DraftKings, who both have employees devoted to internally advocating for responsible gaming. But he also thinks the future of funding might involve heavy investment from leagues themselves. The NFL recently gave $6.2 million to Whyte and the NPGC, which he can use to boost his staff from nine to 11 employees, beef up ads for what to do if you need help and open up a grant submission process for individual states to apply for their needs.

Whyte says he hopes the NFL will expand its investment in problem gambling treatment, while also being quick to point out what a breakthrough it is to have a league providing funding. Most big pro sports leagues in the U.S. have joined as NCPG members -- the NHL and UFC are the most notable absences -- but the NFL is the only one to make a donation. In fact, the NFL is the largest single donor in the 50-year history of the organization.

"Leagues need to cover their own butt and make sure some of their fans don't get jammed up," Whyte says. "It's a competitive advantage to take the lead in problem gambling."

FOR THE PAST few years, and for the foreseeable future, the No. 1 most effective tool for problem gambling is the help line -- if you can figure out which one to use.

On almost every front, the National Problem Gambling Council and the individual state councils are on the same page. But the litany of help line numbers remains a complicated topic.

At the end of every FanDuel and DraftKings ad or online story, there is a long paragraph with all the numbers you can call. There are usually eight numbers (not every state has a help line). The NCPG has its own number, 1-800-522-4700, and New Jersey snagged perhaps the most memorable one, 1-800-GAMBLER, which takes calls from seven different states.

But the vast majority of state help lines are devoted specifically to residents of that state. When Brown gets a call from somebody in Pennsylvania or New York, she passes them along to resources in those places.

The NCPG has broached the idea of one convenient, universal number. But the state councils largely believe there is value in keeping some autonomy and local know-how in the process. Help line conversations can be incredibly intimate and intimidating for the problem gambler on the other end of the phone. Brown thinks it is a different kind of personal interaction when she is able to say, "Oh, you're calling from Hartford? You guys got quite a bit of snow last Wednesday, huh?" and can name specific rehabs, with specific counselors, who might be able to help.

The calls themselves, though, remain a wild grab bag every day. Many states report getting close to 60-70% of calls from aggravated FanDuel or DraftKings users who can't log into their accounts or want to know the lottery numbers. Connecticut added a short, recorded menu at the beginning of a call that explains this is a problem gambling help line, not a way to help you get back to gambling, and gives options for directly contacting the companies. Still, about half of the calls the CCPG got in December were people punching the option for a live person to help them recover their account username.

All told, Brown thinks the number of serious treatment inquiries is about 30%. In December, that translated to an average of six to seven people every day.

In early January, Brown starts to tell a story about a call she had gotten earlier that morning. A woman had called about her husband, who had gambled away their life savings once and gotten help. They'd rebuilt their financial lives over the course of a few years as he stayed away from casinos.

But she'd called the help line that morning because he'd relapsed, and everything was gone again. The culprit? Legalized sports betting. "I need help," she told Brown.

Brown is halfway through that story when she says, "I'm sorry, hold on." There's muffled talking in the background. "My 2-year-old is stuck in a chair."

She has been doing this life-changing work from her house the past two years during the pandemic, all while managing new motherhood. Emilia recognizes the help line ringtone and knows that she must find something to do on her own for a few minutes if she hears it. (Does she finagle extra screen time and some bonus snacks to hold up her end of the bargain? Yes.)

Once Emilia has been unstuck from the chair, Brown picks up where she left off about the woman whose husband relapsed. Brown had run through the options for treatment, both for her and her husband. As tough as problem gambler calls can be, loved ones in pain are especially devastating to pick up. The path of wreckage behind a problem gambler can be big enough to affect generations. "When we treat people, we don't just treat the gambler," she says. "We treat the whole family, because it's a family disease."

By the end of the call, Brown has given the woman her cellphone number and contact information for treatment facilities. The woman sounded like she was hoping her husband would check into rehab. Did he? Did she get herself help, too? Perhaps she followed through on Brown's suggestion to read up on Gam-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and loved ones with a problem gambler in their lives?

Brown doesn't know. She has gotten used to the uncertainty of wondering whether a caller starts gambling again five minutes later or goes to treatment and lives happily ever after. She has a framed version of the serenity prayer hanging behind her office chair, a gift from someone she helped get into substance abuse treatment years ago. She embraces the message of the prayer, which asks for the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that can, and the wisdom to know the difference. She's learned to focus on the effort and let go of the results. Not everybody gets sober. But they all deserve a chance.

As she thinks about success stories, though, she remembers a recent rare case when she heard back from a problem gambler.

He said he'd called the help line and spoken to her a few years ago. He'd enrolled in treatment and hadn't gambled since. He had called back to let her know he was getting married, and was happier than ever. "That was nice to hear," she says. "A lot of the impact is left to your imagination."

Brown sleeps pretty well at night -- unless her CCPG ringtone goes off. It's rare that the night counselors on call don't get to the help line before it kicks to her in the middle of the night. But it happens once in a while and usually wakes up the whole house. Her daughter and husband know how important that ringtone is to her.

Brown says one night a few months ago, she leapt up, turned the light on and grabbed the phone. She started talking to the person on the other end of the line, and she could hear her daughter, in her quietest 2-year-old voice, say, "Dad, shhhhhhh. Mommy's helping people."

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, crisis counseling and referral services can be assessed by calling 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537) for residents of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Wyoming. If you're in Arizona, use 1-800-NEXT-STEP. In Colorado and New Hampshire, use 1-800-522-4700. In Connecticut, use 1-888-789-7777 or visit ccpg.org/chat. In Iowa, call 1-800-BETS-OFF. In New York, you can call 1-877-8-HOPENY or text HOPENY to 467369. In Tennessee, call or text 1-800-889-9789. In Virginia, call 1-888-532-3500. For GA information and meetings near you, check out gamblersanonymous.org.