Of all the addictive behaviors that are known to afflict people, gambling is perhaps the one that is most difficult to detect. So says Rod Correa, an alcohol and substance abuse counselor with a specialty in gambling addiction.
Correa works for the Lexington Center for Recovery in Mount Kisco, the only nonprofit organization in Westchester County to offer treatment for the dependency.
The center, which also has locations in Dutchess and Rockland counties and a facility in New Rochelle, received funding last year from the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to establish a gambling treatment program for its Westchester locations.
The Airmont location in Rockland County also offers a treatment program for compulsive gamblers.
Additional funding to both the Westchester locations and the Airmont office to raise awareness of Hopeline, a hotline number for people to call if they are seeking treatment, came from the New York Council on Problem Gambling. The money is also being used to advertise the organization’s services.
Known to many in the industry as the “silent disease,” a gambling addiction can derail or damage personal, family or career pursuits, and is known to be the leading cause of suicide. The most extreme form of addiction, known as pathological gambling, is a progressive disorder in which an individual has an uncontrollable preoccupation with the urge to gamble.
To be labeled a pathological gambler, a person must meet at least five out of the 10 diagnostic criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association. Some of those include increasing bets to sustain a thrill, gambling as an escape, chasing losses, financing bets through illegal acts and lying to conceal gambling activity.
Not all problem gambling is pathological, but other forms can be just as destructive. Problem gambling often is defined by whether harm is experienced by the gambler or others, rather than by the gambler’s behavior. Severe problem gambling may be diagnosed as clinical pathological gambling if the gambler meets certain criteria.
Exact data on the number of adults addicted to gambling in New York State has not been recorded since 2004. According to that year’s study by OASAS, there were nearly one million people in the state that had been identified as problem gamblers.
A 2006 study by the same group also found that 10 percent of students in grades 7 to 12 had experienced problems associated with gambling and may have needed treatment.
“There’s nothing terribly wrong with gambling itself,” said Correa, the only qualified gambling counselor currently offering treatment to the region’s residents. “The problem is with gamblers who will play, play, play and whatever they win or lose, they’re right back at it again.”
The opportunity to gamble has never been greater, be it racetrack casinos, scratch-off tickets and weekly lotteries, online poker or betting on sporting events. In addition, Correa said playing games like church bingo, raffles and other social gambling activities, while often viewed as benign, can also lead to addiction.
For those with a problem, Correa said people will “sell, borrow or steal” to finance their gambling. While similar to alcohol or drug addiction, as many as half of all gamblers have a substance abuse problem, he said. While genetics and a propensity for addiction could play a role in the link, it may also be environmental, or if the person grows up exposed to gambling and views it as a natural behavior. Or it can be a combination of both.
“Understand that this addiction can lie dormant then awaken later on in life,” Correa said. “At this time, studies aren’t 100 percent conclusive, but it is conclusive enough for (problem gambling) to be acknowledged as a brain disease, just like alcoholism and drug addiction.”
Treating the addiction is often a lengthy process. Since gamblers won’t admit there’s a problem until a crisis emerges, Correa said it’s important to know what has brought them to a counseling session. Often it’s a spouse threatening to leave a marriage or suspension from a job that propels the addict into action, Correa explained. In many cases, homes, jobs and relationships have been lost and all that is left is immense debt, which many people cannot repay.
Once in counseling, Correa creates a treatment plan for each of his patients using cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on changing the unhealthy behaviors and thoughts that are often associated with gambling, such as rationalizations and false beliefs.
Correa said he examines every area of their lives, often bringing in other members of a gambler’s family to lend support and to help cope with coinciding issues.
Cravings, triggers and family history are all topics that are explored. Correa encourages his patients to also join Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step program for gamblers. Participation in GA is important, Correa said, because it gives patients the needed support from others who are experiencing similar problems.
While under his care, patients are urged to create goals with the stipulation that they maintain honesty at all times. Success in the program is determined by the person’s coping skills and ability to maintain abstinence.
Even after the minimum 90-day treatment plan, Correa said patients are welcome to return at any time. Part education and part counseling, the time spent with patients is an eye-opening experience, he said.
“They’ve got to realize that the enemy is right here, and they’ve also got to know that enemy backwards and forwards,” Correa said. “People think they’re in control, but they’re not.”
To find out more about the Lexington Center for Recovery and its gambling treatment program, call 914-666-0191 or visit www.lexingtonctr.org. It is located at 116 Radio Circle in Mount Kisco.
Ten Criteria That May Signify a Severe Gambling Problem
Counselors agree that if a person exhibits at least five of these traits, he or she may suffer from a severe or pathological gambling addiction:
- Thinks constantly about gambling
- Increases bets to sustain thrill
- Exhibits agitation when cutting back
- Gambles as an escape
- Chases losses
- Lies to conceal activity
- Finances bets through illegal acts
- Jeopardizes significant relationships
- Relies on financial bailout
- Fails in effort to control or stop
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