By Bob Gaydos
They call it “the hidden addiction.” There’s no physical sign of it. Nothing is ingested. You can’t overdose on it. People with the problem can often go a long time before anyone close to them becomes aware of it. By then, it is often too late to prevent the devastating consequences.
Problem gambling leads to stealing, loan sharking, suicide, domestic abuse, homicide. It destroys families, leaving loved ones feeling shocked and bewildered, not to mention angry and betrayed. Homes, businesses, jobs, savings, relationships all disappear as the compulsive gambler drags those most important to him or her down the desperate path to getting even.
We don’t hear much about that aspect of gambling these days, what with virtually every state trying to figure out a way to balance its budget by allowing more ways for people to gamble legally. Indeed, as opportunities to gamble have increased in New York, with racinos and seemingly a new lottery game every week, and as politicians talk about allowing more full-fledged casinos, the funding for education, prevention and treatment of problem gambling in the state has been slashed to a lip-service level.
According to the New York Council on Problem Gambling, a not-for-profit independent corporation dedicated to increasing public awareness about the problem and advocating for support services, New York allots about $1 million for the effort. The state agency responsible for dealing with compulsive gambling, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, states on its web site, “Roughly one million New Yorkers are dealing with problem gambling.” So that’s about a dollar per problem gambler, the price of a scratch-off ticket. Your odds of success are better buying the ticket.
Still, there is help available. Sullivan County, in the Catskill Mounains, is one of only 15 in New York that have a facility offering an outpatient treatment program for problem gambling. The Recovery Center in Monticello primarily treats alcohol and substance abuse issues (as do the other 14), but it also has five certified alcoholism and substance abuse counselors trained to help problem gamblers and their families.
Izetta Briggs-Bollings, CEO of the Recovery Center, also supervises its gambling treatment program. She notes that while gambling games have become ever more seductive, “to keep you coming back,” a similar effort has not been made to make casinos more accountable for protecting their customers from their worst instincts, the way bars are expected to recognize and stop customers who have had too much to drink. She’d also like to see the state devote a penny out of every dollar raised through legal gambling to the education and treatment of problem gambling.
E., who lives in Sullivan County, is among those who have sought help for her gambling compulsion at the Recovery Center. Her problem started at the racino in Monticello, she says, but “it didn’t stop.”
“There were stresses in my life,” she says, “but when I’m there, they disappear. There’s excitement going in, pain going out.” At some point, though, she decided, “I wanted to live, to look my mother in the eye again.”
Shame is one of the primary stumbling blocks to compulsive gamblers seeking help. E. says she knew she could get help at the Recovery Center. “There’s a stigma attached to it,” she says. “A lot of gamblers say they won’t go into the Recovery Center for treatment ‘with those addicts’.” Today, she’s glad she’s not one of those gamblers.
The center offers an outpatient program -- “The “Bettor” Choice Program -- with individual counseling, group counseling and family counseling. Carol Gillespie, the counselor who runs the group, says it has 10 members, about half of whom have another addiction, which is not uncommon. She says most people who come for help, prefer individual treatment over group, again, because of shame.
The center has tried, with little success, to keep a Gamblers Anonymous meeting going. Shame, again. Problem gamblers don’t want to be seen going into a center that treats addicts (who, ironically, do not have similar reservations), even though the meeting has been held in an adjoining building. Gillespie says she is willing to help anyone trying to start a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, anywhere in the area, so gamblers can receive the support others receive in 12-step programs.
“In the big picture,” says Robert DeYoung, clinical coordinator and addiction specialist, “education, treatment and prevention saves millions.” Such efforts are often targeted at young people, for obvious reasons. But DeYoung says, “I don’t think people realize how many senior citizens gamble.”
“Gambling is like an affair,” he says, “and the lover steals all the money.” And the gambler’s family often finds out too late because the gambler hides the problem by controlling the money -- taking care of bank accounts and investments, credit cards, paying the bills, taking care of the mail. Like the alcoholic hides the booze, the problem gambler hides the money, desperately seeking to “manage” a life wholly out of control.
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Gambling facts and figures
- 5 percent of adults, 18 and older, have a gambling problem
- Adult males are three times as likely as adult females to have a problem
- Adolescent males are four times as likely as females to have a problem
- Most frequent problem areas for adults: lotteries, sports betting, cards
- 20 percent of adolescents are at risk for or have a gambling problem
- 22 of the state’s 62 counties have a problem gambling treatment program
- New York is the only state without dedicated funds from the gambling industry for problem gambling services
New York Council on Problem Gambling
Where to find help
- For treatment, information, or to set up a Gamblers Anonymous group: The Recovery Center: 845-794-8080, Ext. 191; the center is located at 396 Broadway, Monticello.
- For information from OASAS: 1-877-8-HOPENY, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
- For Gamblers Anonymous meetings: gamblersanonymous.org.
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