The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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May 19, 2014

Oklahoma gambling addicts have few places to turn

TULSA, Okla. — As Oklahoma added dozens of tribal casinos over the past decade, the number of licensed counselors for the state's tens of thousands of gambling addicts has not kept pace, addiction groups say.

Only 45 certified counselors are available at about a dozen treatment facilities that receive state money — which are often 50 to 100 miles from where many problem gamblers live in rural areas. Addiction recovery specialists say Oklahoma should have at least double the number of counselors.

"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," said Wiley Harwell, executive director of the nonprofit Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

Gambling is a big business in Oklahoma, with nearly 120 facilities operated by 33 tribes that brought in more than $3 billion in 2013. But addiction is just as large, though only a few hundred of the state's estimated 60,000 to 100,000 problem gamblers get the help they need, according to records from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

"You have to make the decision whether you're going to get into your car and you're going to drive to one of the (dozens) of casinos in Oklahoma City," said Linda Parton, a recovering gambler who sought and received help from a state-certified agency. "It's right there waiting for you."

Last year, 345 Oklahoma residents were treated for problem gambling, the agency's records show, up from 308 in 2012. But those totals may not be inclusive, as some individuals treated for mental health or substance abuse issues may have also received gambling help.

The counseling shortage is not unique to Oklahoma: An estimated 2,000 certified counselors in the U.S. were available to serve the population of about 6 million to 8 million problem gamblers in 2012, according to a survey prepared for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling. Only 15,000 people received treatment, the agency estimates.

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