Help Is Scarce For Oklahoma Problem Gamblers

Only a few hundred of Oklahoma's estimated 60,000-80,000 problem gamblers receive treatment every year, even as the number of Native American casinos continues to grow. Only 45 certified counselors work at about a dozen state-funded treatment centers, less than half of the required number, experts said.

Oklahoma’s 33 Native American tribes operate about 120 casinos, which generated more than billion in 2013. But as the number and size of tribal casinos continue to grow, only a few hundred of the estimated 60,000-100,000 addicted gamblers receive treatment according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

In addition, there’s a critical shortage of licensed counselors in the state—only 45 certified counselors work at about a dozen state-funded treatment facilities. Addiction recovery specialists said closer to 100 are needed. Officials at the nonprofit Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling said last year, 345 Oklahoma residents were treated for problem gambling,  up from 308 in 2012, although some of them may have received gambling help along with mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Still, said Wiley Harwell, the association’s executive director, “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.”

The state allocates $1 million a year for problem gambling treatment and education, with $750,000 of that from unclaimed lottery winnings and $250,000 through a tribal compact. The state 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.

A major problem is the lack of gambling counseling in the state’s rural counties, such as Ottawa County in northeast Oklahoma where there are 11 casinos in a 30-mile radius but no problem gambling counselors, Harwell said.

At several tribal casinos, employees are trained to spot individuals with gambling issues. Sean Harrison, spokesman for the Quapaw Tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort in Quapaw, said, “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. 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.”

The counseling shortage is a nationwide problem, with an estimated 2,000 certified counselors in the U.S. serving 6-8 million problem gamblers in 2012, according to the nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling. Only 15,000 people received treatment, the agency estimated.