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Bordner’s counselor, Quinton Hehn, has a second floor office in West Central Missoula. He pulls out a drawer of files covering dozens of people he is seeing for gambling or a combination of that and other addictions. Over the years he has helped steer hundreds toward recovery.
Hehn, known by most in the community as Dr. Q, is one of only three local licensed professionals trained to treat gambling addiction and who offer it in a free group setting. One of the things he has noticed about people with an addiction to gambling is that most of them seem to come from a higher socioeconomic status, and often exhibit higher intelligence than those suffering from other addictions.
“Successful people go into their trances doing what they do,” Hehn says. “It’s very much like a meditation. A trance effect. There’s no problems in the world. Everything is perfect. And then when they walk out the casino door, all the problems are back.”
The endorphin rush achieved from the occasional win makes the cycle of dependence in gambling even more difficult to shake. “You could drop a bomb beside them and they wouldn’t notice it,” he says.
This hook comes during this first stage of gambling, when Hehn says the potential addict starts out by seeking that one big “bonanza.” This, he says, is a ruse that looms over the addiction until that person reaches stage two, which is defined by the need for the gambler to win back losses and cover debts incurred. The final stage, Hehn says, comes when the gambler resigns to merely sit at a machine and play every penny they have until it’s gone, no matter how much is won, and walk away broke every single time.
“They just kind of live in that sad life with nothing,” he says.
The world can get even darker for a gambler at the end of their rope. Lucky Lil’s casinos have their own collections system to chase down debts, and can leave some with destroyed credit, Hehn says. He’s also seen his fair share of people getting into trouble over sports betting in town. He recalls one young man associated with Griz football who wound up in his office after he started to dole out tips to sports gamblers whenever, for example, a player had a bad knee that could affect the score. He suffered harassment when he stopped being so forthcoming with his information. Hehn notes that every game in town—televised or live—could have a bet riding on it.
“I’ve seen people talking about losing 70, 80 bucks on a golf game,” he says.
When a gambler reaches the breaking point, the majority of them, by nature, don’t have a penny left to afford treatment out of pocket. This is why so many turn to independent GA meetings led by people like Bordner.
Hehn’s sessions are made affordable on a sliding scale, and he even makes the occasional house call. As a licensed clinical professional counselor, Hehn is eligible to receive funding from the Montana Council on Problem Gambling, whose main office is based in Great Falls.
MTCPG Director Bonnie Huestis says that the effects of gambling addiction on the brain are profound, and quite similar to heroin. The risks for leaving problem gamblers without access to treatment in Montana can be sudden and devastating.
“In our field we say the highest suicide rate of any addiction is with gamblers,” Huestis says. “I have had so many family members come in and say, ‘I was just blindsided. I had no idea my spouse was gambling, and now we’re in debt about $100,000.’”
Historically, gambling has been treated in the medical world as a compulsive disorder, like nail biting, and not a behavioral disorder, like alcoholism. This distinction has prevented a great deal of gambling addicts from being able to receive health insurance coverage for costly inpatient treatment facilities, of which there is only one in Montana. Some folks at Bordner’s meetings have said that in order to qualify for inpatient treatment in the past, they have had to exaggerate their difficulties with other substance addictions or straight-up lie about them just to gain entry and have their gambling issues addressed.
The American Psychiatric Association recently decided to change the way it views pathological gambling, which it will now refer to as “disordered gambling.” They have concluded that disordered gambling shares strong commonalities with substance abuse disorders. Subsequently, their Substance-Related Disorders category has been renamed Addiction and Related Disorders to include gambling.
Counselors who are accredited with the title of licensed addiction counselor have not been legally allowed to provide treatment to people suffering from gambling addiction, but the new distinction from the APA allows room for that to change. In April, Gov. Steve Bullock also signed House Bill 61 into law, which allows for licensed addictions counselors to treat gambling addictions in Montana. The new law goes into effect Oct. 1 and could open up a greater pool of qualified counselors to receive training from the MTCPG—and offer more options to problem gamblers across the state.