Micah, recovering from his third heroin overdose in as many years, drove his filthy car from South Carolina to Michigan, where no one could find him, and issued himself an ultimatum: Get clean or die. I had $50 to my name and knew that if I relapsed in Michigan, with no family or connections to anyone, I would die for real this time, he tells me.
Micah, now 32, has not used heroin in seven years, after enduring withdrawals alone in his car for a week. Recently, however, he has discovered something that comes close: crypto. I used to pick up my bundle of hashish and head home to begin my ritual, grabbing my spoon, lighter, water, cigarette filter, and rig to escape a past with which I am now at peace. Today, I wake up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and perform my new ritual: I open Coinbase, Uphold, Metamask, and Crypto.com, and then I monitor the price charts.
Micah is fully aware that he has substituted one addiction for another. Essentially, the exchanges have replaced my dealers, the coins are my new equipment, and the price chart points upwards, he admits. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to speedballing besides the real thing.
Academic research into the effects of cryptocurrency on mental health is still in its infancy due to the recent mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies. To date, however, the majority of research supports the notion that crypto trading poses a risk comparable to gambling addiction. Similar to day-trading risky penny stocks, investing in high-risk, high-reward cryptocurrencies in the hope of becoming wealthy has the same addictive characteristics as betting on cards, sports, or horses.
A 2019 Rutgers University survey of 876 adults who gambled in the previous year revealed that trading cryptocurrencies may appeal to gamblers with more compulsive and riskier gambling habits, and was strongly associated with those involved in trading high-risk stocks. Two percent of 300 crypto investors polled in a credible, albeit limited, Turkish study displayed signs of gambling addiction.
Professor Paul Delfabbro of the University of Adelaide, who co-authored two of the most recent studies on the psychological effects of trading cryptocurrencies, explains that investing in cryptocurrencies is not an addiction. Rather, portions of the market can be comparable to gambling, he says, indicating that it contains addictive elements. Speculating on meme and hype coins based on limited information is a form of gambling, whereas purchasing a diverse portfolio of the more established, institution-backed coins could be viewed as a lower-risk, safer play.
According to Delfabbo, the technology underlying cryptocurrency enables and facilitates risky speculation, which in turn fosters addiction. He explains that since 221 million people have adopted this technology with little oversight or regulation, it has become a massive liability for those who gravitate toward risky behavior and/or exhibit addictive gambling behavior, such as placing $10,000 on a meme coin.
Unlike gambling and stock trading, there are no laws governing how and to whom cryptocurrency trading platforms may market themselves. Tony Marini, a senior specialist therapist at Castle Craig, a Scotland-based rehab facility that recently became the first of its kind to treat people with addictions to trading cryptocurrency, says that anyone with a smartphone who spends time on the internet, which is a large number of people, will at some point see numerous advertisements for the various cryptocurrencies that are emerging and the various exchanges to trade them on. People who trade cryptocurrencies do not believe they are gambling because of their marketing; they believe they are investing in their future, similar to the stock market.
Marini notes that they claim you will receive a large sum of money back without ever mentioning the possibility of losses. (They are also replete with the bright colors and inviting language that prompted Robinhood criticism in 2019.) Moreover, while brokerage and gambling apps are becoming more accessible and user-friendly, cryptocurrency exchanges are unmatched in this regard. As stated by Marini, they require only an internet connection and email address to get started, and some, such as Coinbase, offer signup and initial investment bonuses.
Which is precisely how Micah became involved. My friend suggested I dive in headfirst with Doge on Robinhood, which I was already using, he informs me. Eventually, he sent me an invitation to Coinbase, where I received a large number of free coins for signing up, and that’s when I became truly interested.
Matt Danzico, a visual journalist, claims he became so immersed in crypto over the course of the epidemic that he was unable to sleep or navigate life without compulsively checking on or considering his investments. Only after he won and subsequently lost a small fortune did he realize the extent of his crypto addiction. Danzico explains that he was struck by a version of himself who was mentally saturated with numbers, charts, and graphs. I was pondering the topic so intently that I would observe my mind passively performing technical analysis on nearly every object in front of me.
Danzico recalls falling victim to the suspiciously optimistic and frequently zealous enthusiasm within coin-specific cryptocurrency communities online. Almost every cryptocoin, from Bitcoin to the Shiba Inu coin, a year-old meme coin with no utility or purpose other than to serve as a publicity stunt, has an established community on Reddit, Telegram, Discord, and Twitter. And within these communities, there is rarely room for anything other than near-oppressive optimism and the belief that the coin’s value is always on the verge of a meteoric rise. As a result, these communities frequently develop the widespread belief that those who lose money are unskilled or lack the necessary fortitude to be successful.
On the subreddit dedicated to Shiba Inu, for example, sellers are criticized for having paper hands. And posts depicting massive losses, such as this Redditor’s question about what to do with a $12,000 deficit, are met with advice to buy more and have faith.
Danzico explains that it is in the best interests of investors for others to hodl [hold onto their investments or hold on for dear life]. This mentality has a trickle-down effect that manifests as near-constant, relentless encouragement [within coin-specific online communities].
Given that the crypto community has largely evolved to downplay the notion that what it is doing could be dangerous for some, and in the absence of widespread intervention and regulation, Marini believes that a severe crypto-induced mental-health problem is imminent. Those who have entered [our rehabilitation program] with a cryptocurrency addiction have all considered suicide, he explains. If we continue on our current course, I believe we will discover that things are only getting worse.
Micah reports that he became somewhat concerned about his cryptocurrency habits after noticing the return of old habits. When I was dependent on H, I would steal food from supermarkets. He informs me that I had cash, but none for food because my funds went to H. And now I sometimes skip lunch at the office in order to purchase cryptocurrency with those funds.
Nevertheless, he sees no reason to quit at this time, as he remains convinced that crypto will undoubtedly lead to a better life. One day, he says, I hope some shitcoin will propel me to fame, and I’ll finally be able to say “fuck you” to my 70-hour-a-week job and spend time with my two children.
Crypto diehards will deny theyre addicted to the highs of chasing financial freedom, but gambling experts disagree