Invisible addiction: Maine groups look for ways to fight problem gambling

Posted March 18, 2016, at 6:22 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Jodie Nealley won big at a slot machine in Reno, Nevada, in 2005 while she attended a business conference, taking home $2,500 more than she showed up with. Four years later, she was in a prison cell serving a two-year sentence for embezzling money from her employer to feed an out-of-control gambling problem.

Today, Nealley is intervention and recovery support coordinator at the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, working to help people whose lives are hurt by an unhealthy relationship with gambling, whether in the form of March Madness brackets, scratch tickets, or slot machines. She told her story in Bangor on Friday during Maine’s Annual Conference on Problem Gambling Awareness, attended by about 30 people representing Maine community health organizations, treatment centers, casinos and other groups.

“Gambling is not about a slot machine, or even about money; it’s about the rush you feel before you’re about to do it, after a big win, or in a near miss,” Nealley said.

About a year after her successful time in front of the Reno slot machine, she went to Foxwoods, the casino closest to her Massachusetts home. She was drawn to the $100 machine.

Six months later, she’d lost $300,000. She was fired from her job in 2007 for stealing money from her employer and later went to prison. Until she was caught stealing money to fuel her addiction, no one had a clue she had a problem, not even her family, she said. She was divorced while in prison.

In Maine, there is no data on how many people suffer from gambling addictions, according to Christine Theriault, substance abuse prevention and control manager for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s in part because people are so secretive about their gambling habits.

National survey data indicates that 85 percent of Americans say they have gambled at least once. About 1 percent of the U.S. population has experienced compulsive gambling, while an estimated 4 million to 6 million Americans have struggled with a less serious gambling problem.

Mainers have the option of voluntarily adding themselves to a self-exclusion list, which bars them from casinos for 1-5 years or life, if they choose. Between February 2014 and March 2016, just 270 Mainers added themselves to the list. Most chose to do so at one of the state’s two casinos, usually after losing significant amounts of money, according to Theriault.

While there are similarities between problem gambling and other addictions, one major difference is that some gamblers are treated like “winners” — offered free hotel rooms, trips, and other special “high-roller” treatments based on how much they spend to feed their habit. That can aggravate an already serious situation, Nealley said.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, also spoke at Friday’s conference. He talked about the growing prevalence of Internet gambling, and how online opportunities are making it even more difficult for people to notice a loved one’s struggles.

Problem gambling is a “disorder so bound by shame and stigma,” that it prevents many people from seeking help. The stigma is enough to keep them from revealing their struggles with others, but isn’t enough to prevent them from seeking the “high” of scratching a ticket or setting a chip on the roulette table, he said.

More information about the signs of problem gambling and what to do if you or someone you know are struggling is available at www.maine.gov/dhhs/samhs/osa/help/gambling. Information and assistance also are available by calling the Maine help hotline by dialing 211, or the national helpline at 800-522-4700.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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