Photo by Ralf Steinberger, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo by Ralf Steinberger, Creative Commons, Flickr

Massachusetts is offering a program called GameSense to help prevent compulsive gambling. But where can people go when that program doesn’t work?

About two percent of all state residents say they have an addiction to gambling, according to UMass researcher Rachel Volberg, who studies gambling trends for the state.

Volberg said that when she polled the problem gamblers, a quarter of them said they’d like to get help. But few had actually sought it out.

“Internationally, we know that problem gambling is associated with a great deal of stigma and shame, and people much, much prefer to try and manage it by themselves,” Volberg said.

That creates some dilemmas in the treatment world, starting with how to recognize who needs help.

“We consider it the hidden, or invisible, addiction,” Volberg said. “You don’t come home with track marks in your arms.”

Marlene Warner runs the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.

“You might come home a little bloodshot, because you’ve been at the casino several days, but it’s just not revealing itself in the same way that another addiction would,” Warner said.

Visible or not, gambling addiction is expected to spike after MGM opens, based on past research.

With that in mind, the Gandara Center in Springfield is preparing to do more screenings among its mental health patients.

Spokesperson Lisa Brecher said their mostly low-income population is at high risk for gambling addiction, since many are unemployed and coping with poverty and violence.

“They turn to a way to alleviate that,” Brecher said. “The same way some folks use substances, we’re afraid the same population will start to misuse this recreational activity.”

Brecher said the center expects more patients to develop gambling addiction, but not necessarily tell their providers about it — which is partly why the clinic has trained many of its existing counselors in gambling treatment, but not hired anyone new.

“Based on supply and demand, we’re pretty confident we have enough people in place right now,” Brecher said. “What we are talking about and preparing for, if we do start to see a lot of these things identified during the intake process, is: will we have to increase capacity?”

The tricky part, health leaders say, is making sure supply keeps up with the demand.

Warner said the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling — under contract with the state — has ramped up its trainings, mostly among clinicians who already treat substance abuse and mental illness.

“We also get a lot of requests from community-based organizations, certainly from senior centers,” she said.

According to the council, about 150 practitioners across Massachusetts are certified to treat gambling addiction, including both private practice and employees of larger mental-health organizations.

“I’d say that there’s a lot more groups that still need to be trained, and a lot more groups that need some information,” Warner said.

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