Photo By David Robert

For 60 years, Nevada ignored the problem of gambling addicts, finally taking some tepid steps in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, avoidance resulted in an addiction rate well above the national average. Denise Quirk, owner of Red Hawk Counseling, is a therapist who helps treat gambling addicts.

There is a sort of conspiracy of silence around this problem in this state, and we journalists are especially guilty of it. That has an effect on public policy. Does it also have an effect in counseling sessions?

Very much so. When you say the conspiracy of silence, we call it, in counseling terms, that gambling is a hidden addiction. Frankly, there’s no red nose or bad breath or running eyes or all the other signs that people look for in other addictions. But the toll that it takes on our families and our communities—for one thing, one of the hallmarks is preoccupation. The amount of time that gamblers spend thinking about gambling, going to gamble, actually gambling—which, for a lot of people in our town, it’s escaping for lunch for a little while and gambling and perhaps being late in being back from lunch—and then the amount of time that it takes to recover from gambling, especially when they’re compulsive gamblers, is enormous. For many of my clients, it’s 24/7 … So it’s hidden, per se, and people tend to not know a lot about it until the worst things happen.

A lot of things about this problem are symbols and code words and so on. What does it say that we don’t even call it gambling?

Well, gambling in this town is big business. Changing the name to gaming is, in my opinion, a very clever marketing strategy, and it works for people who are using gambling as a form of entertainment. The statistics that I know are about 90 percent of the adults in America at one time or another are going to gamble. The national prevalence is around 2 percent are going to turn into compulsive gamblers. In the state of Nevada, it’s about 7 percent. And those are just the prevalent studies that we’ve done in the last few years. My guess is, it’s probably more than that. So how they use the terms and the code words, I have respect for the business end of it because there are a great many people who can gamble without having a problem, and it’s not my mission to destroy gambling per se. My personal mission is to educate people about how swiftly and how seriously they can develop compulsive problems.

We have public agencies that deal with drugs and alcohol abuse. Are there any public agencies that deal with addicted gambling in Nevada?

Treatment, no. Right now, treatment is on an individual, profit or nonprofit business basis. Myself, as the owner and counselor in Red Hawk Counseling, I’m the only out-patient state-certified and nationally certified gamblers’ counselor in Reno at this time. I have three interns that I am currently training that are going to be private practice counselors that are already drug and alcohol counselors that are going to start treating gamblers. The Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the arrangements that you are referring to—agencies that help with treatment—there are lots of dollars available for alcohol treatment and drug treatment. There are agencies specific to it. There are halfway houses and treatment centers … for drug and alcohol. There’s nothing that the state funds for treatment of gamblers.

Has the attitude of the industry changed over the years that you’ve been practicing?

In my 12 years of practice, I would say yes. The attitude of the industry has definitely improved in their attention to an awareness of and learning about gambling disorders and problem gamblers both in their employees and how it affects their business.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...