Playing the lottery: a hobby that can turn into a serious addiction

It's the chance to hit it big and win millions of dollars in an instant.

Playing the lottery is a worthwhile gamble for many people, but for some, the hobby can turn into a serious addiction, ripping away finances and sometimes even family.

The North Carolina Education Lottery said last year alone, people spent $1.6 billion on scratch off tickets.

RELATED | Are lottery vending machine safeguards enough to keep minors from playing?

Some, like Thomas Young, get lucky. When we talked to him, he had just won $500 on a $10 ticket.

But, he admits, every win fuels the desire to play more.

"All the time, all the time, even if I win $5, I'm like should I get another ticket or just take my five," Young said.

Javary Porter says his mother gambles about $60 a week. He admitted that he thinks she's addicted.

It's a problem that Carl Greenwald knows all too well.

"I've heard from some folks that when they get their paychecks it's almost like it's time, it's time to go buy some tickets," said Greenwald, a gambling counselor who has seen the promise of a win steal everything and sometimes even lead to suicide.

"It's a terrible loss when someone has to die because they couldn't see a way out, couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel," Greenwald said.

He's one of 90 counselors around the state who help provide guidance if you or a family member have a problem.

You can reach him by calling the North Carolina problem gambling hotline that's available 24/7 for free. If you call, someone with counseling training will answer the phone in Chicago and get more information about your concerns.

Then, they can transfer you to a local counselor, like Greenwald, for an in-person session to get help.

Greenwals says unlike other addictions, it can be hard to determine when you're gambling too much.

"That's a good question because it is an invisible line sometimes," Greenwald said.

He says the biggest sign is when you're spending gas, rent or grocery money to keep playing and cause a financial burden to your family.

Greenwald described the types of gamblers -- those seeking a thrill, or looking to avoid something going on at home. He says some people become addicted to the idea of a win.

"When we anticipate a win, there is a heightened amount of adrenaline and other feel good things going on in our brains," said Greenwald.

Smith Worth is the program manager for the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

She says last year, about 6,000 people in North Carolina called in, and, of those, 800 received services.

"The level of helplessness is just tremendous, and many times folks who call say there is no hope," Worth said.

She says about 2 percent of the population has a gambling problem.

"Probably about 45 percent of the calls that come in to the help line are related to the lottery. Most of those have to do, in fact, with scratch cards. It's sort of the instant win they are looking for," Worth said.

Worth says the hotline offers guidance from peer counselors who have training on problem gambling.

Van Denton, with the North Carolina Lottery, says the lottery works closely with the program to make sure people are playing responsibly.

"We try to be a good partner with them, talk with them regularly. We listen to them, and, if they're hearing concerns, they can bring them to the lottery and we can look and see what we're doing, what we can do to minimize any harm that comes from playing the lottery," Denton said.

Denton says the lottery provides $1 million a year to run the hotline and get services to those struggling with addictions.

As for instant wins, he says the lottery usually runs 45 to 50 games at once and saw a 25 percent increase in scratch-off sales last year.

"Even as our sales grow, we are putting more money into responsible gaming," Denton said.

The Problem Gambling Hotline says last year 20 people in Western North Carolina used its services.

If you, or someone you know, needs help with a gambling addiction, call 877-718-5543.

You can also learn more information about the porgram here.

The North Carolina Lottery chief was recognized last year for her work to promote responsible gambling.

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