By Kayla Branch

On a recent Saturday night at the Choctaw Casino and Resort in Durant, thousands of people packed into the building to enjoy a concert and the bright, blinking slot machines.

It’s estimated that 74 percent of Oklahomans gambled within the last year, according to a 2019 study by the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Wiley Harwell, director of the Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling, said only 3 to 4 percent of people will develop some level of a gambling addiction. But only about 10 percent of those individuals will seek help.

As Oklahoma’s high-stakes dispute over tribal gaming continues, Harwell said conversations about problem gambling have been somewhat pushed to the side.

And while the availability of treatment for problem gambling in Oklahoma has expanded greatly over the last decade, more effort is needed to spread the word, Harwell said.

“They are arguing percentage points — we are still just trying to say ‘We have to get people help,’” Harwell said.

Treatment evolution

When Class III tribal gaming first became legal in Oklahoma in 2004, there was no real treatment program in place and no state-certified counselors available, said Jeff Dismukes, spokesperson for the state Department of Mental Health.

“We ended up creating it from the ground up,” Dismukes said. “There was a lot that went into it.”

As the gambling industry took off, services started to increase as well.

In the last several years, the state went from under 10 certified treatment centers to nearly 40, Dismukes said.

Harwell’s agency contracts with the state, so his job includes training gambling counselors, giving presentations, running the state’s problem-gambling hotline and working with tribes to promote responsible gaming.

In 2009, Harwell helped implement an updated self-exclusion program, which allows individuals to voluntarily ban themselves from casinos.

People used to have to walk into the casino they’d want to be banned from and fill out a form. Now, many tribes will accept the one uniform application. Roughly 1,300 individuals are in the self-exclusion program, Harwell said.

“These people have the highest suicide attempt rate of any addictive disorder,” Harwell said. “The level of depression these folks get in with financial issues that they see no way out of whatsoever. So we have to do our best to help people.”

How tribes participate

The state provides $1 million to treat problem gambling — a quarter coming from fees paid by the tribes, and the rest coming from unclaimed lottery prize money.

Harwell’s agency, which is required to stay neutral through the compact dispute, receives that $1 million, but it’s only 40 percent of Harwell’s budget. The rest comes from voluntary donations from tribes.

“It used to be almost entirely state funded,” he said. “But we have a tribal membership the tribes participate in, so that is how we gain most of our funding. We offer our services in return for membership.”

The compacts outline a few requirements tribes must adhere to (having brochures available on problem gambling, getting casino employees trained), but tribes do more, said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

“We understand there is a subset that has issues, so we want to know how to assist,” Morgan said.

“A lot of tribes have stepped up beyond what is required and said ‘We will start to promote treatment throughout territories, we will search out partnerships, we will continue to meet and work with state legislators and folks that work in this industry.’”

The Chickasaw Nation recently added a position that solely focuses on addressing problem gambling, Morgan said. Tribes participate in Tribal Voices, which pushes awareness of problem gambling, and they’ve paid for five billboards to promote the hotline.

The hotline averages around 75 intake calls a month, and about 60 percent of those callers say they got the number from a casino, Harwell said.

Work still needed

Even though treatment has expanded, some areas in the state still go without.

In western Oklahoma, some towns are over 100 miles away from a treatment center, Harwell said. The state also only has one Gambler’s Anonymous group, located in Midwest City.

And while many tribes participate in the statewide self-exclusion program, more than a dozen do not, Morgan said.

Treatment for gambling addiction is expensive, so treatment options are limited.

“We can never justify needing more money for treatment because we have static numbers,” Harwell said. “You couldn’t ask for better from the large tribes (on awareness funding), but what would help is more money from the state for awareness and publicity. … There are 100,000 people at any time that need help and don’t get it.”

As Gov. Kevin Stitt pushes for the state to get more money from tribal gaming, his office said he “supports the current priorities that are funded by revenue generated from the gaming compacts.”

To change funding priorities, the governor would have to speak with tribes and the state Legislature.

“No one could have predicted from 2004 to today where we would be,” Harwell said. “If I was starting from scratch, I’d put all my money into prevention and awareness and then treatment.”

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with problem gambling, call the state’s free hotline at 800-522-4700.