Addiction: Gambling With Your Health (cont.)

There are disturbing signs that young people, too, are being targeted. Industry regulators and critics are concerned about new trends in slot-machine design, specifically the use of popular animated characters, including Betty Boop, the Addams Family, and the Pink Panther. For children six and over, Toys R Us even advertises a mini-slot machine on its web site.

When Gambling Spins Out of Control

What differentiates an occasional gambler from a problem gambler? Any significant increase in gambling or a preoccupation with gambling that takes time away from work and family life may indicate a serious problem. Gamblers Anonymous uses a series of 20 questions (see their web site link below) to help gamblers and their family members determine whether an individual's gambling activity has reached a point that clinicians would call pathological.

Eric Geffner, PhD, a certified California gambling counselor in Los Angeles, emphasizes that compulsive gambling is a medical disorder; the brains of pathological gamblers actually look different under a microscope than those of nongamblers. But unlike other addictions such as alcoholism, an addiction to gambling can be difficult to spot. "We call it a hidden disease," says Geffner. "Gamblers often do very well at work, until their financial setbacks start taking a toll on them and their families."

Gary Lange, PhD, of Palm Springs, Calif, a psychologist and state-certified gambling counselor, speculates that a combination of genetic predisposition, personality type, and environment create the blueprint for the addicted gambler. Also, living within 50 miles of a casino doubles the likelihood that an individual will develop a gambling disorder, he says. "In Palm Springs, there's an exploding problem among retirees who have not one, but five casinos within a 50-mile radius. Add loneliness, boredom, or chronic pain to the mix, and you have an explosion."

The Road to Recovery

Ten years ago, when Bruce R., a 57-year-old insurance broker from Southern California, was on the verge of suicide after having gambled away the trust of his family and three business partners, little help was available. He was advised by two doctors that he just needed to get his gambling "under control" -- which is like telling an alcoholic to drink more moderately. "One doctor even asked me for advice on his own betting scheme," Bruce recalls.

Now, Gamblers Anonymous organizations have sprung up nationwide as well as internationally, and counselors who specialize in treating gambling disorders are available in many states.

Larry Atwood, executive director of the South Dakota Council on Problem Gambling, feels that greater public awareness of the personal toll of pathological gambling will encourage more people to seek help before they reach rock bottom. "Once they come in or call, we advocate intense family involvement because of the disastrous financial implications. Credit counseling is a must, so they can avoid bankruptcy at all costs. This is directly related to the two things that pathological gamblers have to get over to start feeling better: guilt and shame."

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