Nathan Wilson | Journalist
Natchitoches Parish Council will soon decide when to hold a referendum to allow video poker to return to Natchitoches Parish. Voters will then decide whether or not to allow businesses to operate video poker machines throughout the parish.
Cynthia Madison is an addiction specialist at the Natchitoches Behavioral Health Clinic. It describes the risk of allowing draw video poker. “Gambling is like any other addiction. It’s compulsive behavior,” she says.
Madison describes what drives people to problem gambling: “It’s like a drug. They get something out of it if they win,” she says. “The impulse starts if they win multiple times, whether small or big.” She explains that players can feel a sense of euphoria even if they lose. “Even if I don’t win, it’s the anticipation of when I will.” she says. “The compulsive nature of the disease pushes them to continue.”
The eventual winnings that gamblers win are rarely enough to offset their losses, but the success of casinos shows that this doesn’t matter to compulsive gamblers. For gambling addicts, even losses can evoke the endorphin rush they crave, and their perception of their luck is manipulated by the design of the machines.
“They are attracted to lights. They are attracted to sound. It’s the compulsion that drives them to put money in the machine because they’re looking for a self-gratification solution,” Madison says. Players come to associate the distinctive animations and sounds the machines make when they successfully win, even if they lose. Gambling sites also rely on the public’s tendency to overestimate their probability of winning by masking the odds players face with a sense of control over the outcome. With electronic gambling, players respond to both “near misses” and “hot” machines by playing more. Video poker machines go a step further than slot machines because the choice of how to play a hand gives players a greater sense of control, even though the outcome is decided by the device’s algorithms.
Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling executive director Janet Miller agrees that compulsive gambling is a serious problem. It contrasts gambling with other forms of entertainment. “Gambling can become addictive for some people, whereas most hobbies and entertainment are not addictive.” She says. She also sees the constant availability of the game as problematic. “You can also play 24/7, 365 (days) a year,” she says. “Most forms of entertainment have a beginning and an end.”
Some people show warning signs that they are at a higher risk of succumbing to gambling addiction. Miller lists some factors associated with a person being more likely to develop a compulsive gambling problem. “Some risks would be a family history of problem gambling in their family or addiction to drugs or alcohol,” she reveals. She also identifies some questions she tries to answer about a person’s situation. “Do they become obsessed with the game once they start? Are they taking risks in other areas of their lives? Is their personality competitive? ” she asks. “How much time, money and effort is spent on gambling? Do significant other people have concerns about their gambling behaviors?
Miller notes that it is not as easy to identify problem gamblers as drug addicts. “Unfortunately, gambling addiction can be a ‘hidden or invisible’ addiction,” she says. “Most people identify that their relationships are negatively affected by their gambling and (their) personality changes; they admit manipulation, lies, deceit and secrecy.“
Anyone can be hurt by compulsive gambling. In her abrupt resignation in April, Democratic state Senator Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans cited a decades-long struggle with gambling addiction and depression. While she had served in the state legislature since 1999, her troubled gambling experience first surfaced when she was charged with a misdemeanor at L’Auberge Casino in 2019. Peterson was awarded the charge because she voluntarily joined the state’s self-exclusion list restricting her. to access casino services statewide.
People who sign the self-exclusion list ban themselves from gambling statewide for at least five years, with violators being treated as trespassers. While Peterson remained a member of the Senate after her gambling was initially revealed, she is now the subject of a federal investigation into her finances.
Madison offers a harsh assessment of problem gambling. “Gambling is no less dangerous than drugs,” she warns. “Gambling can cause you to become homeless more quickly, not meet your basic needs, or cause your children to have less because (their parents) cannot meet their needs.” She paints a dark picture. “They get so compulsive (they think) ‘I’m only going to spend a little, but I end up spending it all, so I can’t meet my basic needs.'” she says. “I didn’t get anything, so let me put in some more. Maybe I’ll hit this time.”
Miller adds to the list of problems people face when their gambling gets out of hand. “We see first and foremost financial strain or stress in someone with gambling disorder,” she says. “People are identifying abuse with forms of credit, loans, pawning (and) theft to keep playing.”
Although the connection between gambling and theft or other forms of crime is troubling, many compulsive gamblers become victims of their own disorder. The Nevada Council on Problem Gambling reports that 17% of people treated for gambling disorders had attempted suicide and a survey of problem gamblers in the UK found that one in 20 respondents had attempted suicide in the past. the previous year. A 2017 Louisiana Gambling Impact Study by the Louisiana Department of Health acknowledged higher rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among compulsive gamblers, but failed to measure the rate. at the state level and indicated that there were too few to compile by individual parish.
Madison says problem gambling also harms communities. “That leads them to need community resources.” she says. “The resources that are there for the really poor and needy people, they (players) are starting to use those services.”
Miller also considers compulsive gambling to amplify a range of societal ills. She lists the problems that individuals, and ultimately communities, encounter after the establishment of gambling; “Chronic personal and societal indebtedness, increased homelessness, dysfunctional or broken families, loss of productivity or educational pursuits, breakdown of direct communication to online or virtual forms of sharing, less intimacy and poor communication skills. coping, increased crime, concurrent disorders and addictions, and so on,” she says.
Natchitoches attorney Eddie Harrington assists Natchitoches residents through the bankruptcy process. He believes Natchitoches has been spared bankruptcies resulting from compulsive gambling. “That would be very, very rare. I can’t think of any (bankruptcy) I’ve had in the last decade that was caused by gambling debts,” he says. He suggests gambling could cause problems when a client faces bankruptcy. “If they have a gambling addiction and they still do it, it’s going to cause a whole host of problems in a bankruptcy.”
Madison and Miller both describe a long process of treating problem gamblers with cognitive behavioral therapy and suggest that recovery may require additional and ongoing help, such as attendance at a support group and financial monitoring. Madison offers insight into what recovering from gambling addiction might look like: “We try to train them to have these thoughts arise, how to change their thought patterns.” she says. “With drugs you can go for treatment, but most of the time with gambling it’s the behavior modification you need.”
Louisiana offers free treatment services for gambling addiction, including residential treatment at the Center for Recovery (CORE) in Shreveport. More information on gambling addiction treatment is available at helpforgambling.org or by calling 877-770-7867.