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Invincible and Invulnerable

The dangers gambling poses to adolescents are starkly evident in a new study by Mark Potenza, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and one of America's leading researchers into the brain science of adolescent addictions.

He wanted to see if there was a link between adolescent gambling and other mental health problems. He compared the behavior of gamblers against non-gamblers in three different age groups: adolescents under 18, young adults between 18 and 29, and adults over 29.

"What we found was that in comparing the adolescent gamblers to the adolescent non-gamblers, the adolescent gamblers were more likely to report problems with alcohol and drug use and more likely to report depression," says Potenza. "The early-onset adult gamblers as compared to the adult non-gamblers were more likely to report problems with substance abuse, both in the alcohol and drug arenas. And the adult-onset gamblers as compared to the adult non-gamblers were not any more likely to report problems with substance use or depression. So it suggests that there is this association between beginning gambling before the age of 18 and a variety of mental health factors, both in adolescents and during the young adult period."

In other words, kids who gamble are more likely to experience problems with drugs and alcohol and suffer from depression than those who don't gamble. Most schools already have programs designed to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. But what about gambling?

At the University of Pennsylvania, the tree-lined Locust Walk is the busiest thoroughfare on campus. It's dotted with students handing out fliers for forthcoming events, shows and pamphlets about various health and personal safety issues. It's exactly the kind of place you'd expect to see posters or information about the dangers posed by gambling. But it doesn't happen says graduate student Eian More.

"Gambling? I've never seen a poster. I've never seen fliers regarding this. I have seen physical fliers about drinking, about mental illness. But as far as gambling purposes, we've never been exposed to any procedure if you have a problem or who you would seek out."

Our experience on campus was much the same. We picked up a flier from the student health center, CAPS - Counselling and Psychological Services. And as far as we could see, there was no mention at all of gambling addiction. There were warnings about the "misuse of alcohol and drugs." But there didn't appear to be anything about gambling.

So despite poker sweeping through campuses like Penn, many universities seem oblivious to the gambling bonanza that's unfolding right under their noses, and the impact it could have on their students.

At Penn, we were refused an interview with the department responsible for overseeing student life. At the University of Minnesota Duluth, it was the same story. The student health services refused to give us a taped interview, but did tell us in private that they had no treatment programs or awareness campaigns for gambling.

The only person who was prepared to offer any kind of explanation for why colleges appear to be turning a blind eye was Dan Romer, from Penn University's Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Institute.

"For the most part, universities are concerned with behaviors that will cause a problem, not just to the individual and potentially to their work, but to others around them," says Romer. "So behaviors that may really only impact that individual and that person's family, they just don't see that problem as intensely real."

Dan Romer says the universities are making a big mistake by ignoring the threat posed by gambling.

"If it keeps growing the way it is, they are going to see kids who are going to have trouble getting through school because they're losing all their money and the parents can't afford to send them anymore. I think it's going to get to that point. We should have programs in high schools that educate kids to the fact that if you get on the Web, and you start using a credit card, you're potentially going to be in for some serious trouble. Parents should be educated about it as well. And we don't have any of that in place. And you want colleges to be aware of the fact that they probably have a certain percentage of students who are having this problem, and they're just ignoring it."

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