Funding for gambling treatment in Massachusetts fails to reach those in need

The Gandara Center in Springfield, Massachusetts offers mental health care for those who suffer from problem gambling. The center is located just one mile away from the MGM Springfield casino and is one of the few mental health clinics in the area to offer such treatment services. Unfortunately, there is only one certified clinician at the clinic who is specialized in treating gambling disorders, and she is currently treating only five patients.

Enrique Vargas, a clinical supervisor at Gandara, previously treated gambling addiction and says, “There’s definitely many, many more people with problem gambling.” Vargas believes that part of the reason more people are not accessing the services is because it is not being promoted in the community. Moreover, according to national surveys, Massachusetts has designated more money for problem gambling treatment than any other state, with $24 million in a Public Health Trust Fund specifically allocated to mitigate the harms of gambling.

However, the state does not track how many people are seeking treatment. Marlene Warner, who runs the nonprofit Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, believes that the money from the fund is not being spent where it should be, and she and her board are concerned about the current state of problem gambling treatment and prevention. According to state gambling research, about 2% of the population has a severe gambling addiction, while another 8% are considered at-risk for serious problems.

Keith Whyte, head of the National Council on Problem Gambling, states, “Massachusetts did many things right in setting up gambling regulations. But their treatment numbers are abysmal.” Victor Ortiz, who runs the Office of Problem Gambling under the state Department of Public Health, says that the vast majority of people who experience gambling disorder or high levels of stress related to gambling do not seek formal treatment.

While Massachusetts does have 150 therapists trained in problem gambling treatment, it is difficult for people to access these services. When a local media outlet called the state’s official gambling helpline for information about local resources, the staff person was not able to provide an accurate list of options. In addition to a lack of access to treatment, there is also a level of stigma surrounding gambling addiction that keeps people from seeking help.

There is a need for more education about gambling addiction, both for those who suffer from it and for those who may not realize that they need help. Enrique Vargas believes that it is the responsibility of the authorities to promote campaigns about the harms of gambling to help people understand why they need help. The state Department of Public Health, however, notes that it is reaching out to people through their substance abuse helpline, which shares a phone number with the gambling helpline. Although there are some efforts being made to increase public awareness of problem gambling, ultimately more support and resources are needed to meet the demand.