A casino could open in Terre Haute a couple years from now. If national statistics prove true here, a small percentage of residents could develop a gambling addiction.

Communities in this position can prepare for that prospect.

In fact, gambling addictions likely are present in Terre Haute right now.

"You probably have problem gamblers in your community already. You just may not be aware of it," said Mary Lay, manager of the Indiana Problem Gambling Awareness Program at the Indiana University School of Public Health in Bloomington. People afflicted by the addiction may play the lotteries or bingo, frequent casinos elsewhere, bet illegally on sports, or wager in private card games or online.

"I mean, [Monday] was the completion of one of the largest sports betting events of the year," Lay added, referring to the championship game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Bracket pools and side wagers on "the Big Dance" are common here and every other place in America.

A bill to place a casino in Terre Haute faced myriad ups and downs in the Indiana General Assembly last week. If lawmakers ultimately approve the bill, Gov. Eric Holcomb signs it, and Vigo County voters say "yes" to a casino through a referendum, the addition of a large, legal gambling facility would raise the profile of gambling addictions in this community — those already known and those that crop up among new casino players.

"Now that [a gambling facility] would be close to home, you would see a slight increase, or a bigger than slight increase" in gambling addictions, said Chris Gray, director of the Indiana Council on Problem Gambling. Like Lay, Gray knows the issue closely. Gray spent 20 years working for the Indiana Gaming Commission, including a decade as its director of compliance, before leading the ICPG. Problem gambling "is a big deal" in any household it touches, she said.

So, if a Terre Haute casino becomes a reality, then the community should be proactive about the realities that come with it.

Between 1 and 3 percent of gamblers in the U.S. will develop a pathological gambling problem, said Lay, citing figures used by the awareness program at IU. For Vigo County, that could range from several dozen to hundreds, depending on how heavily locals patronize a new casino. "Even 10 would be significant to a community," Lay said of new problem gambler cases.

Ninety-five percent of people going to a casino experience no problems, Gray pointed out. "They know it's their entertainment dollars, and they're very aware of their limits," Gray said. "However, there is that percentage that it does affect."

And that small group spends a sizable amount. Between 15 and 33 percent of gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers, according to a composite of studies around the country cited in the Minnesota Department of Mental Health's 2018 "Legislative Report."

Among that group, some are "problem" gamblers who deal with a few consequences of the addition, Gray explained. Those who experience many or all of the effects are "compulsive" gamblers. Addicted people develop an increased preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more often, restlessness or irritability when trying to stop, and a loss of control in which a person keeps gambling in spite of mounting consequences, according to the ICPG. They also "chase losses" by trying to win back lost money through gambling more.

Many gambling addicts hide those effects from family, friends and coworkers.

The impact is felt by people around an addicted gambler, too. Addicts may gamble to escape pressures at work or home, so they may be absent from those places. Their irritability leave their family "walking on eggshells," Gray said. Some addicts end up in jail, trying to pay off debts illegally, and one in five compulsive gamblers attempts suicide, Gray added.

"It does affect the family," Gray said. "It's so heartbreaking."

Gambling addicts can be helped, both Lay and Gray emphasize. 

There are currently 20 problem gambling treatment providers in the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction network that offer specialized counseling. The outlets get a state reimbursement for handling clients with gambling additions, paid by casino revenue funneled into the Indiana Problem Gamblers Assistance fund. An average of 1,400 clients per year are treated within the state network, Lay said.

Of course, problem gamblers reaching out for counseling likely have exhausted all their money and are indebted to others. Though it's up to the state's individual gambling treatment providers as to whether they charge for such treatment, Lay said, "The fee will be low if any. Generally they use a sliding scale that is based on income and resources. No one is turned away, providers work with the clients."

And, like other addictions, compulsive gambling can be overcome, Lay said. Awareness of the problem reduces its pervasiveness. Lay of the IU awareness program and Gray of the ICPG visit high schools and middle schools to talk about gambling. Yes, gambling is a thing for tweens and teens. Forty-five percent of eighth-graders said they bet or gambled money at least once in the past year, according to the 2018 Indiana Youth Gambling Behavior survey, an annual poll by IU's Indiana Prevention Resource Center.

Seeking help is crucial, as well, for compulsive gamblers and their families. Casinos maintain a program, instituted by the Gaming Commission, that allows gamblers to voluntarily exclude themselves from all Indiana casinos or specific ones. Gray hopes motivated Terre Hauteans initiate Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon support group chapters.

The state also operates the Indiana Gambling Help Line by phone at 800-994-8448. Treatment providers are listed online at through the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction site at in.gov/fssa/dmha/files/Problem_Gambling_Providers.pdf. The closest providers in the state network are at Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Fortunately, Hamilton Center developed a strategic plan last year to enhance its services for addictions in the near future, a move that will include recruiting certified gambling addiction specialists and training current staff to gain certification, too. Mark Collins, chief clinical officer of Hamilton Center's behavioral health system, said Wednesday the plan will enhance services for a variety of addictions at facilities in a 10-county area, using "evidence-based practices."

Steps such as those are important for Vigo County.

A casino could inject revenue to local government that could pay for quality-of-life projects, employ hundreds and provide an additional reason for visitors to come to the county, just as local officials contend. While those possibilities are emphasized amid their push to land the casino, community leaders should put equal energy into preparing for the negatives that tend to come with a casino. It's just the right thing to do.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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