NORWAY — Treatment and support options for Mainers struggling with a gambling problem have expanded in recent years, and new state rules may help more people break away from an addiction to gambling.

A handful of representatives from local social work, behavioral health and faith organizations gathered in a conference room at Stephens Memorial Hospital on Thursday to learn more about problem gambling at a training sponsored by Healthy Oxford Hills.

Although presenters made it clear that someone can develop a problem from any form of gambling — from bingo and scratch tickets to horse races and high-stakes card games — the establishment of two casinos in the state has brought more awareness to the topic.

Several local substance-abuse counselors expressed concern that existing clients who were overcoming problems with drugs or alcohol had begun frequenting the local casino and wanted to be prepared for possible future issues.

Presenters Guy Gosselin and Al Laude, from Merrimack River Medical Services in Portland, explained that identifying and treating gambling addiction can be more difficult than substance abuse.

“You can’t smell gambling; gamblers don’t have dilated pupils,” Gosselin noted, explaining how a problem could be easily hidden from family and loved ones.

In many cases, he said, problem gamblers seek out help only when they have gambled themselves into destitution.

Many of the same strategies used to treat substance abuse are also used for problem gambling, but the issue can sometimes require different resources and attention from family and caregivers, Gosselin said. For example, dealing with a gambling problem could mean going over financial information, bills and bank accounts with a counselor, he noted.

Although the problem is serious, little attention has been paid to it in the state until recently, Gosselin said.

The state now has four Gambling Anonymous groups located in Brewer, Lewiston, Portland and York, and the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services has contracted with Merrimack River Medical Services and Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services in Bangor to provide free problem-gambling assessment and treatment services.

The Maine Gambling Control Board is also updating the rules governing self-exclusion, a program that allows people with a gambling problem to ban themselves from the state’s two casinos for two years up to a lifetime.

Barbara Deschenes from Healthy Oxford Hills explained that by self-excluding, gamblers will be expelled from casinos they attempt to enter and may even have trespassing charges pressed against them. She said Oxford Casino recorded two to three self-exclusions a month.

Gosselin said it was not unusual for people to change their appearance in order to get into a casino after signing up for exclusion.

At present, gamblers may only sign up for self-exclusion at either of the state’s casinos or at the Gambling Control Board. However, on Feb. 3, the rules will change, allowing people to volunteer for self-exclusion at nine other sites around the state, including Stephens Memorial Hospital.

Gosselin said that for people with a casino-related gambling problem, self-exclusion is an important tool, but it needs to be balanced with counseling and a strong support network.

To find more resources for problem gambling and to connect with local agencies, contact the 211 confidential hotline by dialing 2-1-1 in Maine or visiting www.211.org.


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