CLEVELAND — Jess Stewart’s first encounters with gambling came at age six — his dad was into illegal sports betting and would take him along.
Then at just 17 years old, Stewart's mother died as he cared for her — and he spiraled into depression and addiction.
“I wasn’t one who needed to gamble on a daily basis, but when those urges came, they were out-of-control urges. They were pathological,” he explained. “People would sometimes tell me just quit. Well, it’s not that easy.”
Stewart has been a recovered gambling addict for years now, saying treatment is truly what saved his life, his family, and his finances.
“I came home after a trip to Las Vegas where I lost about $40,000 in cash and putting it on credit cards and I really didn’t know if I was going to have a marriage left, but I knew I was on the verge of suicide,” he said.
Studies show problem gamblers have the highest rate of suicide of any addiction disorder, as News 5 has covered in the past.
In January 2023, the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio received 1,492 calls into their helpline.
That’s compared to 456 in January 2022.
Cleveland actually saw three times the amount of calls compared to both Columbus and Cincinnati.
But experts say — it’s promising that people are seeking help sooner rather than later.
The data also shows more younger callers since sports betting became legalized — an increase in those ages 18 to 24, as well as 25 to 34.
And in the past, those reaching out for help did so after seeing consequences after 3 to 5 years.
Now, they’re admitting financial and family issues within one year.
“So people are seeing and developing consequences quicker but they are also reaching out sooner which is a really good thing,” said Michael Buzzelli, associate director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio. He explained they’re not anti-gambling but want to encourage people to gamble responsibly.
Here’s another good thing.
Ohio had plenty of time to learn from our neighboring states that have had legalized sports betting for years.
In fact, Buzzelli said we have more clinicians in Ohio who have specific gambling addiction expertise than others.
“So we knew this was coming, we put in our time, we did our due diligence, we have phenomenal preventionists who are out talking to schools and colleges and communities about responsible gambling,” Buzzelli said.
But sports betting is year-round and apps on your phone make it easy, even gamified to place bets.
"It's more open, it's more fun, it's more stylized as entertainment than gambling, but what we need to remember is that it is still gambling. It is still chance and there are risks associated," Buzzelli said.
Jess said he lost about a quarter of a million dollars over his lifetime. Not to mention the emotional and mental toll it took on his family and loved ones. It's why he speaks out about his addiction and recovery, hoping to save others from heartache.
Only use disposable funds - money you could realistically afford to lose.
“But if you’re using money that should be used for rent, utilities, mortgage, then you’re already in the danger zone,” he said.
And if that happens — get help, as soon as you can. The number to call is 1-800-589-9966.
Operators are trained on gambling addiction and can talk you through issues, direct you to nearby resources or treatment, and immediately get you transferred to an on-call clinician.
They can also give you services like software blockers for your phone or computer to block all those sports betting apps and advertisements.
"Help is available, recovery is possible and the sooner they reach out, the better the outcome," Stewart said.