Thursday, November 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gambling treatment gets at the heart of addiction

Seattle Times staff reporters

How to get help

The state has started

a comprehensive treatment, prevention and education program to address problem gambling. For more information, call the problem-gambling help line: 800-547-6133. The help line can also provide a list of approved treatment providers.

Source: Washington Problem Gambling Program

Problem gambling: How severe?

Counselors in the state-funded treatment program typically ask 17 questions to screen people seeking help for a gambling problem or addiction. Among the questions:

• Have you tried but not succeeded in stopping, cutting down or controlling your gambling?

• Have you gambled as a way to escape personal problems?

• Have lied you more than once to family members, friends or others about the extent of your gambling or gambling losses?

• Has your gambling caused you to lose a job, have trouble with your job or miss out on an important job or career opportunity?

• Has your gambling caused you any problems in school, such as missed classes or falling grades?

• Have you sought loans from family members or anyone else to bail you out of a desperate situation that was largely caused by your gambling?

• Has your gambling caused serious problems with any of your family members or friends?

• Have you written a bad check or taken money that wasn't yours from family members or anyone else to pay for gambling?

• Has there been a period when you lost money gambling one day and returned another day to get even?

• Have there been periods lasting two weeks or longer when you spent a lot of time thinking about your gambling experiences or planning future gambling ventures or bets?

Source: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago

Treatment for problem and pathological gambling typically covers certain basics — such as identifying important issues in a person's life and changing problem behaviors.

But it also may need to be tailored to address a person's special circumstances, such as age or cultural background.

Teen gamblers, for example, tend to be harder to treat than adults because many don't accept gambling addiction as a serious problem and don't stay long in therapy, said Margaret Ferris of Bellevue, a certified counselor who works with teen gamblers.

"Once they start feeling better, they are gone, whereas adults can make the connection that in order to feel better" they must stick with treatment, she said.

That's why Ferris creates plans for teens in increments of 30 days or less, instead of the standard six months.

Older gamblers, on the other hand, may struggle with feelings of guilt and shame because they were raised in an era when gambling was less accepted, said Linda Graves, manager of the state's problem gambling program. Thus, helping seniors deal with shame could be important in their treatment.

The state's new free treatment program, which takes such factors into account, provides problem gamblers with an average of 20 sessions with a counselor, and an additional five sessions for family members.

To qualify, individuals must have the severity of their problem assessed and the extent of financial need. The client then may choose from a list that now includes eight providers but will have others after the first of the year.

In general, the state requires providers to address certain issues, such as the health of a person's relationships, legal and financial matters and spiritual resources.

"They look at what's going on in each area of a person's life. Then they prioritize what needs to be addressed and how," said Graves.

For example, one gambler may be stressed out by taking care of her sick mother, while another may have a spouse who enables his gambling by always bailing him out.

Once such circumstances are addressed, the hardest part for the gambler is changing the behavior.

"It's not as easy as just saying no," said Graves.

In fact, telling gamblers they have to quit may discourage them from seeking treatment. "They're the ones who are going to say what success is for them," said Graves.

For one gambler, success may be in making it to a son's ball game after missing the past 10 games because of gambling, she said. For another, it may be staying within a set financial limit.

The goal of the program is not to make a gambler stop, but to reduce the harm the gambling is causing and improve the quality of life for the gambler and his family.

Counselors typically must help gamblers recognize their own faulty thinking. An addicted gambler might say: "I'm a professional earning my living this way. I'm just in a slump now."

The counselor's job is to help the gambler see that reality isn't accurate.

Most treatment likely also will recognize that people go through several stages before they are motivated enough to change. They first must realize they've got a problem and decide to change. They then may try and fail several times before they do succeed.

It's often a matter of practice and thinking ahead, counselors say. For example, a person who always stops at a casino on the way home from work may instead take a different route home. Success in such a case may be measured simply by short-circuiting the impulse more times in one week than the previous week.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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