More Problem Gamblers Seek Help
Championed as an engine of growth, legalized gambling has roared across the country in the last decade. In its wake it has left an unprecedented number of compulsive gamblers who annually cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity, stolen and embezzled funds, and unpaid taxes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"As predicted, it has reached enormous proportions ... and we can't ignore it any longer," says Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, Md.
As a result, programs designed to help compulsive gamblers have sprung up nationwide, particularly in areas where gambling has recently been legalized. Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a 12-step self-help group, has doubled in size since 1989. The number of outpatient counseling services has also increased tenfold.
But the number of hospital-based in-patient services has actually declined. And experts say there are not nearly enough services to meet the demand. "Not by a long shot," says Sheila Blume, medical director of Chemical Dependency and Compulsive Gambling Programs at the South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y.
While it is impossible to identify the number of people who gamble compulsively, experts say it has kept pace with the growth of legalized gambling. Twenty years ago, only New Jersey and Nevada allowed high-stakes casino gambling. Today, it has spread to more than 30 states, and all but two, Utah and Hawaii, allow some form of legalized gambling.
As a result, a record number of Americans are putting down bets. The amount of money wagered has shot up from $17 billion in 1976 to $489 billion in 1995.
Experts say that between 4 and 6 percent of the people who gamble lose control - so much so, they become willing to lie, cheat, steal, and sacrifice their families just to put down a bet.
"I was kiting checks, charging up credit cards - I even contemplated robbing a bank - not behavior appropriate for the mother of two small children," says Karen H., now the international executive secretary of GA. "Thank God I was forced into it by my husband at the time."
GA is by far the largest provider of services to people with gambling problems. Supported only by members' contributions, the only requirement to join is a desire to stop gambling. Based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, GA members agree that they are powerless over their gambling and turn over their lives to "a power greater than ourselves." Through regular meetings, and sharing of experiences, GA operates as a "fellowship" where problem gamblers help each other into "recovery."
DAN B.'s experience is typical of many GA members. He had started gambling at age 13 and kept it up into adulthood. While he had gambled his family's savings away, gone deeply into debt, and even scammed some co-workers to pay for his habit, he had not stolen. At least, not until a bookie he owed $3,800 threatened his life.
"I was terrified, my head was spinning, every morning I'd look under the car for a bomb. I'd be trembling, sweating, and looking over my shoulder," he says.
The postmaster of a small town, Dan B. started writing out money orders and pocketing the cash. "In my sick head, I was only borrowing the money, I was going to pay it back," he says. Within three months, he had embezzled more than $40,000.