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Bottoming Out: Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas

In workplaces, even here, help can be hard to come by

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About this series

In the three decades since the psychiatric community recognized compulsive gambling as a mental disorder, it has evolved from a small area of study to a global research effort involving dozens of medical doctors and other specialists who have generated hundreds of studies and hosted as many conferences.

Yet it remains a largely secret affliction, in part because it carries a stigma even here in the birthplace of modern gambling. As a result, sufferers don’t want to discuss the problem or seek help.

Fewer than 10 gambling treatment programs run by state-certified counselors exist in Nevada. The number of nonprofit treatment clinics that waive costs for those who can’t pay — a common predicament for gambling addicts — can be counted on one hand. Fewer than 400 people underwent treatment for gambling problems in state-funded counseling programs in the two-year period ending Sept. 30. Though many more seek out self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, it’s believed to be a fraction of the more than 90,000 Nevadans with gambling problems.

The Las Vegas Sun explores problem gambling three ways — through the experiences of an addict, by examining what happens inside the brain of an addict, and by considering the role of slot machine designs in feeding gambling addictions.

The stories

  • Part 1: Tony McDew not only recognized that he had a gambling problem, but set out to document it with his video camera, hoping that sharing his experience could help others. When the jackpot hits, “It feels like you’re getting high.” And when it doesn’t? “You want to crucify yourself.”
  • Part 2: The mere sight of a slot machine can trigger a chemical response in the gambling addict’s brain in the same way the thought of cocaine stimulates a drug addict. Some researchers are exploring the use of drugs to treat addicts. Robert Hunter offers old-fashioned group and one-on-one therapy. Coming Monday.
  • Part 3: When designer Si Redd realized the overwhelming attraction of his video poker machine, he advised addicts to get help — and leave Nevada if necessary. Today the role of the machine in feeding addiction is debated. At some casinos in Canada, gamblers can tell slot machines to limit their play. Coming Tuesday.

If a co-worker has a few too many drinks during an after-work get-together, it’s common for a colleague to take his car keys away. Maybe the colleague or a supervisor will keep an eye on him for other telltale signs of alcohol abuse.

But that isn’t the way it usually works with a gambling addict, panelists said at the National Center for Responsible Gaming’s conference on gambling and addiction last week at Mandalay Bay.

Although most big employers have wellness programs to address destructive behavior brought on by addictions and several gaming companies have problem gambling awareness programs to spot troubled customers, few workplace programs are in place to assist employees whose gambling is out of control.

“How do we communicate or educate our employees about these issues? The answer is: We don’t,” said Punam Mathur, NV Energy vice president of human resources, who spent 13 years as a senior vice president at MGM Mirage.

Although Las Vegas is the epicenter of the gaming industry, few local employee assistance programs directly address problem gambling, said Carol O’Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling.

Some experts eventually arrive at the conclusion that problem gambling is at the heart of a workplace issue, O’Hare said, but it’s usually after other issues are eliminated. O’Hare said it concerns her that problem gambling isn’t even on some checklists.

Although gambling is so accessible in Las Vegas, there is no conclusive evidence that the percentage of employees suffering addictive gambling behavior is any higher than in other places, she said. But she also said because gaming is so accessible here, problem gambling should have a higher priority.

Mathur said there are several reasons problem gambling isn’t addressed more in Nevada. One is that people are uncomfortable talking about losing money. Some, she said, don’t like to talk about things they don’t understand — and addictive behavior is an area filled with misconceptions. Others “don’t want to bite the hand that feeds” them and gaming is the dominant industry in the state.

Patricia Jessie, director of gambling services and a senior clinical associate at Chicago-based Bensinger Dupont & Associates, a provider of employee assistance programs, said many companies are in denial when it’s discovered that some top executives are addicted gamblers. But she noted that it shouldn’t be too surprising — many entrepreneurs take big risks for big rewards.

She said an executive at a Midwestern company quit his job when he got into financial trouble. No one saw the red flags of problem gambling despite the executive borrowing money, and the root of the problem wasn’t discovered until a clinician asked a family member whether the man had a gambling problem.

Mathur said the public needs to know more about problem gambling before it can be addressed properly.

“What we need to do is move the needle on public awareness,” she said.

That, she said, can be done by finding high-level executives within a company who care about the issue and who can make it part of the corporate culture, even if just by putting up posters with contact information for problem gamblers.

Jessie said a good time to address the matter is when high-profile sporting events take place, such as the Super Bowl or March Madness. When a sport is in the spotlight, addictive gambling warning signs can be publicized and problem gambling’s effect on office productivity — employees using their computers to monitor sports or betting lines or even wagering online — can be noted.

A version of this story appears in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.

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