Jacqueline Sit, News 9
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Gambling addiction is a sickness experts say often goes untreated. It's also a public health concern that's growing in Oklahoma because the state ranks fifth in the nation for having the most casinos.
Experts say because there is no substance involved in gambling, many often don't see it as an illness, but gambling changes the brain's chemistry in ways drugs do.
"It's almost a numbing effect," said Michelle Jester. "It's like you go in there and that adrenaline rush get started."
It's that rush that made Jester realize she had a problem. Gambling is an addiction she has been fighting for 20 years and it all started with playing Bingo.
"Next thing you know I got slot machines and I'm out there four or five times a week," said Jester.
Jester said she hit rock bottom when she went all in and ended up hurting her family.
"It's horrible, I mean I have two small children and was evicted from a home and moved back with my parents. Getting cars repossessed and you know even sometimes that wasn't enough," Jester said.
"They get in the zone and they get in a trance and they're just locked in and that machine just becomes their best friend," said therapist Susie Harrigan.
Harrigan works as a therapist for the A Chance to Change Foundation, which helps people like Jester with counseling. Harrigan said the need for counselors has grown by 50 percent over the last year.
"There's a lot of devastation, not only personally, but also with family. They have to lie, cheat and steal to feed their gambling addiction," said Harrigan.
"We are really 25, 30 years behind recognizing problem gambling as a legitimate psychological disorder. Although it's listed as so, the public doesn't understand how a behavior can become an addiction," said Wiley Harwell, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Assoc. for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.
The Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling reports Oklahoma has 110 casinos. People who live close to them are more likely to develop a problem.
"It's amazing is what it is. It's how good, moral church going people in many cases, this takes over their life and they begin to do things they would never think of doing otherwise," said Harwell.
Jester now leads a support group for those who are struggling. She's going to recovery once a month and is no longer taking a gamble on her loved ones lives.
"It almost seems so overwhelming to come out of but there is hope. There is a way out," Jester said.
Those who are concerned about their gambling can call A Chance to Change to make an appointment for a confidential evaluation. Family members are also greatly affected by this illness, and they are also encouraged to participate in counseling. To make an appointment, call (405) 840-9000 or go to the A Chance to Change Foundation's website.
The Oklahoma Association For Problem and Compulsive Gambling also offers help on their website.