Losing bet 

Credit: Shannon Cornman

Twelve certified gambling treatment programs in the state receive that money from the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The amount was set when casino gambling in Oklahoma began in 2004.

While such treatment programs receive additional funds from anonymous donors and grants from some American Indian tribes that run the casinos, the money is supposed to provide help for an estimated 100,000 problem gamblers. That amounts to $7.50 per problem gambler annually — less than the average cost of two boxes of Girl Scout cookies — to treat gambling addiction, as well as the training of counselors and community outreach by the treatment centers.

With 117 casinos in Oklahoma, Indian gaming in the state earned $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2010 and $3.23 billion in fiscal year 2011. Nevertheless, the 2004 compact agreements signed by the state and the tribes provide just $250,000 annually through 2019 for treatment of gambling addiction. The other $500,000 earmarked for yearly treatment comes from the Oklahoma State Lottery.

And that’s caused a headache for those who provide the counseling. Karen Cathey, executive director of A Chance to Change Foundation, said her organization provided services to problem gamblers in fiscal year 2012 that exceeded its Department of Mental Health contract by 35 percent. She said A Chance to Change last year saw a 53-percent increase in services to problem gamblers than the year before.

“The money that we get from the Department of Mental Health doesn’t cover all the services we could provide,” she said.

Lack of foresight

Wiley Harwell, executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling, said no one anticipated the state’s booming growth of gaming when the tribes’ share of the gambling treatment funds was agreed upon.

“That’s not an accusation on any one’s part, and this isn’t the tribes’ fault. This is the way the legislation set it up in the very beginning of the compact agreements,” he said. “Nobody imagined
we’d be where we are today. They thought there’d be a handful of

In fact, Harwell said Oklahoma has the country’s third-largest number of slot machines, located everywhere from gas stations and smoke shops to the second-largest gaming floor in the country at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville.

But requests for additional funding to treat problem gambling are hampered because treatment centers are barred from keeping waiting lists of those seeking help.

“The dilemma is, since we only have ‘x’ amount of dollars for treatment and every bit of that gets used every year, how do we have the statistics to prove we need more money when we use exactly what we have and they’re not allowed to keep waiting lists?” Harwell said. “It’s hard to justify without hard numbers that we need more money.”

Moreover, he said the estimate of 100,000 problem or addicted gamblers in Oklahoma is conservative. The figure is based on a 1999 national survey that reported 1.5 percent of the population are pathological gamblers at any one time. The percentage doubles if susceptible individuals live within 50 miles of a casino.

“The vast majority of the population of Oklahoma lives within 50 miles of a casino,” said Harwell.

Other funds
Some tribes make direct donations to Harwell’s organization while others contribute a percentage of money collected when problem gamblers sign self-exclusion agreements with some of the tribes.

“If a casino patron self-excludes themselves from a casino but they go back in and win anyway, [the casinos] check them compared to this self-exclusion list, and then [the patrons] don’t get that money,” he said.

Harwell’s group is administering a statewide self-exclusion list, which has the participation of 17 tribes and allows gamblers to self-exclude at casinos run by those tribes.

Because gambling can create an actual physical craving akin to substance abuse, Harwell said he anticipates the inclusion of gambling addiction in the upcoming edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“Gambling enhances serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine levels of the brain,” he said. “So then if you’re not able to gamble, or if you’re trying to cut back your gambling, you have withdrawal symptoms of agitation and irritability because your body is literally saying, ‘Hey, where are my levels of excitement? Where’s my serotonin? Where’s my norepinephrine and my dopamine?’”

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