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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

UNLV Introduces Training for Problem Gambling Counselors

15 March 2004

LAS VEGAS -- The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has introduced a series of classes to train problem gambling therapists that is expected to better prepare casino employees, social workers and other locals in their efforts to help a growing number of people at risk for developing gambling problems.

The program consists of an undergraduate minor in compulsive gambling counseling and graduate courses for people receiving masters degrees or doctorates in other fields.

The university has hired additional faculty to teach the counseling courses, which opened for enrollment quietly last fall and have so far attracted less than a dozen students. The university expects to publicize the training program this year as well as drum up financial support from the casino industry and other businesses, said Larry Ashley, head of the training program and undergraduate coordinator with the university's Department of Counseling. Donations would be used to fund research on compulsive gambling that would help counselors in their work with clients, Ashley said.

"We're at the hub of professional training for this," he said. Ashley has more than 30 years of experience as an addiction counselor and has incorporated compulsive gambling training into the university curriculum for the past several years. The program serves as yet another part of a larger effort to establish a communitywide network of compulsive gambling resources, said Carol O'Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. At a public forum held Friday during last week's National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, O'Hare said progress is being made to make the public aware of gambling addiction as a legitimate medical disorder. National Problem Gambling Awareness Week occurs every March and is co-sponsored by the National Council.

The increasing availability of legalized gambling is putting more people at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers, said Rena Nora, director of the Veterans Administration outpatient program for problem gamblers in Las Vegas.

Research in Nevada has shown that gamblers who lived in the state for 10 years or less have a higher rate of compulsive gambling behavior than people who have lived in the state longer, O'Hare said.

"For people who come here there's an attraction (to gambling) that may play into those numbers," she said. Some of those people may be predisposed to becoming compulsive gamblers.

The Nevada Council is continuing its efforts to help more social service agencies other groups become aware of the signs of a gambling addiction and help people before the disease worsens.

"We're not just trying to help people who are going over a cliff," O'Hare said.

By the time people come in for treatment, they have usually maxed out their credit cards, filed for bankruptcy or divorce or had suicidal thoughts, said Nora, who will be instructing some of the training courses for therapists at the university.

In recent years, Nora said she has noticed a more rapid deterioration in her patients in Las Vegas compared to her work with gamblers in New Jersey, where she began her career treating compulsive gamblers more than a decade ago.

While several studies have shown the incidence of problem gambling at any given time, there's not enough research to show how those figures have grown or otherwise changed over time, O'Hare said.

Most counselors in the field of addictive disorders learn their trade "on the job" or apply elements from more well-researched areas such as alcohol abuse to other addictions, Ashley said.

"Gambling abuse training was like alcohol abuse training 30 years ago. You didn't have research or funds for treatment," he said.

The university training program will work in concert with a state certification program for compulsive gambling therapists signed into law last year, he said.

Starting this year, therapists must be certified with the state before treating gamblers.

The state Board of Examiners for Alcohol, Drug and Gambling Counselors, formerly known as the Board of Examiners for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors, appointed two compulsive gambling experts to devise the training standards. Two people have so far applied for state certification, the agency said.

For the past several years and before the certification requirement, the board has approved assorted problem gambling training programs for use in Nevada, including those offered by nationwide training agencies that specialize in addictive disorders, said Sharon Atkinson, the executive director of the state board.

Unlike the UNLV program, the out-of-state training programs incorporate other addictions and generally run a few weeks out of the year, she said.

Ashley developed the university curriculum with help from the National Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit network of training and education centers that also approves training programs.

While some program graduates may choose to become certified counselors, others may simply take courses to complement other majors such as hotel management or business, Ashley said.

The university is paying to support the program without help from industry donors. University officials were supportive of the program but needed some initial assurance that enough people would be interested in the training, he said.