Services available for gamblers
January 31, 2008
Servicemembers in Europe whose lives are negatively affected by gambling can get help. Mental health counselors, chaplains and Gamblers Anonymous groups are available to guide gamblers back on the right track.
At U.S. Navy bases in Europe, Fleet and Family Support Centers offer a variety of counseling and support sessions to help both sailors and dependents through addiction problems, including gambling, said Gary Winsper, director of regional FFSC offices.
The centers offer licensed counselors to work through additional problems that might arise from such addictions, to include marital struggles, dependency issues, stress and anger management. Financial planners also are available to help organize a member’s budget.
Some problems may be exacerbated overseas, said Karen Karadimov, director for the Fleet and Family Support Center in Naples, Italy. That’s because some servicemembers may develop a false sense of security since nearly all their needs — such as housing and medical care — are paid for by the military.
“Living overseas, even though the euro [to dollar exchange rate] is not good for us right now, we do see a lot of overspending,” Karadimov said. In addition, servicemembers get extra money, via cost-of-living adjustments, to compensate for the poor exchange rate.
“It sometimes gives them a false sense of security that they have more money, more expendable income to do things like gamble,” she said.
“For some, there are temptations everywhere,” from food to alcohol to slot machines. “If someone has a problem with shopping, what are we going to do, shut down the NEX? We can’t. Our goal is to be able to help them identify when they’ve had too much. We have programs to teach responsibility and to take ownership of their behavior.”
Pathological gamblers exhibit certain characteristics, said Army Col. Susan Hendricks, a psychiatrist and Department of Behavioral Health chief with 18th Medical Command at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.
Pathological gamblers continually gamble with more and more money, lie, get irritated if they try to stop, chase their losses and gamble as a way to escape from their problems.
An addicted gambler feels great tension when playing the odds, according to Capt. Catherine Callender, chief of the mental health element at Osan Air Base in South Korea. This tension rises as the gambling goes on, especially because the players can never know when they might win, she said.
“You have no idea when you will hit the jackpot,” Callender said. “You keep on and keep on, and you can’t predict. Once it does, it’s very rewarding.”
When the jackpot does come, the gambler feels an enormous sense of relief, Callender said. But that period of relief or euphoria is short-lived, and the tension soon returns.
Gambling disorders may accompany other health problems, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Hendricks said.
Signs or symptoms of pathological gambling include major changes in behavior, Callender said. A person may become more compulsive, even about things that don’t involve gambling. He or she might repeatedly ask to borrow money with unfilled promises of paybacks.
Treatment often involves trying to find another activity that will provide a similar release without risking financial ruin, Callender said. In many cases, the gambling behavior masks other problems that must be addressed as well.
In addition to the Fleet and Family Support Centers in Europe, the chaplain corps is able to counsel problem gamblers, said Chaplain (Cmdr.) Daniel Stephens, Naval Support Activity Naples command chaplain.
A tremendous benefit for those seeking counsel through the chaplains’ corps, Stephens said, is that members may remain confidential and their sessions will not be reported to their commanders.
Stephens remarked how one of the biggest challenges facing problem gamblers is the proximity of machines on base.
“In the military, we make sure they pay their bills, take responsibility for their debts, and take care of the families and do their job. We as the government hold them accountable. And then the military makes it so convenient by having slot machines right on the base,” he said.
Stephens said he has offered counseling on additional issues stemming from problem gambling — fractured marriages, mounting debts and careers in jeopardy.
For the 53,000 Americans in the Kaiserslautern military community in Germany, help for a gambling problems is available through mental health counseling or weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
“If a person with a gambling problem is identified, he is referred to a mental health counselor,” said Marie Shaw, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center spokeswoman. “There is no treatment facility in Europe specifically for gambling problems.”
Additionally, the Army does not have a medical department program dealing with gambling problems, Shaw said.
Landstuhl officials said that gambling is not a major issue here.
“We do not consider pathological gambling to be a problem among soldiers in Europe,” according to an e-mail response from Army Col. (Dr.) Luther Johansen, chief of the hospital’s behavioral health division.
When asked what help was available for a gambling problem, the U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern and the Air Force’s Family Advocacy program at Ramstein Air Base provided information on the Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
Counselors at the Army Substance Abuse Program at Landstuhl also sometimes will refer people to weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings, said Charles Austin, clinical director of ASAP at Landstuhl.
One regional Gamblers Anonymous organizer in Germany said he gets an average of 40 calls a year from Americans stationed in Germany.
“Those are the people who call us,” said Alex K., who, as a 20-year member of GA, asked that his full name not be used. “Quite a few people don’t call us.”
He estimated that the U.S. Army has 500 to 1,000 compulsive gamblers in Germany. His region includes the entire country.
He’s noticed a trend among the Americans he’s talked to. Usually they’re people who didn’t feel comfortable going off base, and, in looking for things to do on base, started playing the slot machines.
GA, which uses the same methods and meeting style as Alcoholics Anonymous, doesn’t treat gambling, he said. “It just helps you to change your life” by teaching you how to take actions to act more like a human being, and less like a machine, Alex said.
There are two English-language meetings that he’s aware of — one in Wiesbaden, and one in the Kaiserslautern military community. Neither is very well attended, he said. The Wiesbaden meeting draws about four participants a week, the Kaiserslautern meeting about five.
Stars and Stripes reporters Matt Millham, Jennifer Svan and Terry Weaver contributed to this story.