Conference focuses on gambling disorders among active-duty military, veterans

October 25, 2017 GMT

Hartford — A clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of problem gambling disorders among active-duty military and veterans related the case Tuesday of a 24-year-old soldier who told a clinician he enlisted, in part, to get away from gambling.

Heather Chapman, the keynote speaker at the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling’s 14th Annual Conference, said the young man had found himself spending all of his free time at the racetrack and at casinos — and, after enlisting, spent his first paycheck gambling on darts.

Active-duty military, a population beset by periods of intense action and plentiful down time, is plenty susceptible to problem gambling, Chapman said. So, too, are veterans who may develop problems once they’ve returned to civilian life.

Just how big an issue is gambling addiction in the military?

Estimates of its prevalence vary widely, said the Connecticut-born Chapman, an associate professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and director of the Gambling Treatment Program at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. But, she noted, it’s believed to be more common among the military than among the general population.

Nearly 150 people attended Tuesday’s conference, which was held at the Radisson Hotel Hartford.

The National Council on Problem Gambling has reported that studies consistently find gambling-addiction rates among active-duty military and veterans that are “significantly higher” than the general population, with an estimated 36,000 active-duty members meeting the criteria for a gambling problem. In the same report, the council noted that some 3,000 slot machines are in place at military bases overseas, generating an estimated $100 million a year in profits — none of which is dedicated to gambling-addiction treatment programs.

Research published in the late 1990s found that the average rate of problem gambling across all armed services was estimated at 8.1 percent, roughly twice the rate in the U.S. adult population. Chapman cited data indicating that 7.1 percent of military personnel report having at least one serious gambling-related problem during their lifetime.

The bigger issue, Chapman suggested, is the small number of servicemen and women who get treatment for problem gambling. Treatment options for veterans and military personnel are lacking, especially overseas, she said, and many in the military eschew treatment because of feelings of shame and secrecy.

Among the military, the stigma associated with seeking help for gambling addiction is so strong, Chapman said, that some military personnel who seek help would rather say they’re being treated for cancer than for problem gambling. Addressing the many clinicians in the audience, she said treating military personnel requires an understanding of military culture and one’s own feelings about it.

A government study published earlier this year found that a total of 514 active-duty servicemen and women were seen by the military health system for problem gambling during the 2011-15 fiscal years.

Marlene Warner, acting director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said Chapman’s talk was especially timely because Congress is currently considering including funding for problem-gambling screening in the Department of Defense’s budget.