- Associated Press - Sunday, May 18, 2014

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - As Oklahoma added dozens of tribal casinos over the past decade, the number of licensed counselors for the state’s tens of thousands of gambling addicts has not kept pace, addiction groups say.

Only 45 certified counselors are available at about a dozen treatment facilities that receive state money - which are often 50 to 100 miles from where many problem gamblers live in rural areas. Addiction recovery specialists say Oklahoma should have at least double the number of counselors.

“It’s so frustrating, because a lot of people don’t seek help because they don’t have any money left, unless they go to a center with state funding,” said Wiley Harwell, executive director of the nonprofit Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

Gambling is a big business in Oklahoma, with nearly 120 facilities operated by 33 tribes that brought in more than $3 billion in 2013. But addiction is just as large, though only a few hundred of the state’s estimated 60,000 to 100,000 problem gamblers get the help they need, according to records from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“You have to make the decision whether you’re going to get into your car and you’re going to drive to one of the (dozens) of casinos in Oklahoma City,” said Linda Parton, a recovering gambler who sought and received help from a state-certified agency. “It’s right there waiting for you.”

Last year, 345 Oklahoma residents were treated for problem gambling, the agency’s records show, up from 308 in 2012. But those totals may not be inclusive, as some individuals treated for mental health or substance abuse issues may have also received gambling help.

The counseling shortage is not unique to Oklahoma: An estimated 2,000 certified counselors in the U.S. were available to serve the population of about 6 million to 8 million problem gamblers in 2012, according to a survey prepared for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling. Only 15,000 people received treatment, the agency estimates.

Oklahoma earmarks a total of $1 million annually to treat gambling addiction and raise awareness of the problem. Three-fourths of that money comes from unclaimed lottery winnings, and the other $250,000 is allocated under a compact the state has with the tribes through 2019, Harwell said.

But that money only stretches so far.

Oklahoma invests about 20 cents per resident for problem gambling services, compared with 32 cents on average in the 39 states with publicly funded services, according to last year’s National Survey of Problem Gambling Services.

The scarcity of gambling help is amplified in some of Oklahoma’s most rural communities, such as Ottawa County in the northeast part of the state, which has 11 casinos in a 30-mile radius but no counselors, Harwell said.

“From a behavioral health perspective, it’s hard to provide treatment in rural communities and get resources to people who are in need,” state agency spokesman Jeff Dismukes said.

Parton, the recovering addict, grew up in a household where family poker games and trips to Las Vegas were common. But gambling became less enjoyable in 2008 following her divorce, and the bank account she always maintained was soon depleted.

“You have to talk yourself out of it. If you get so down and depressed, first thing you want to do … was go to the casino and spend my money to get my mind off my troubles,” Parton said.

Some Oklahoma tribes are working along with the state’s few addiction specialists to self-police their casino floors, seeking out problem gamblers.

Sean Harrison, spokesman for the Quapaw Tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort in Quapaw, which attracts gamblers from Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, said managers undergo training to spot signs of problem gamblers.

“There’s a wealth of experience here with our managers and supervisors (who) have worked in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and all over the country. We have many, many years’ experience here, and so they know what to watch for,” Harrison said. “It’s something we don’t like to see.

“If it comes up on our radar, we’re eager to help and want to help.”


Eaton reported from Oklahoma City.


Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KristiEaton.

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