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Standing on the precipice: Problem gamblers now have more hope

On June 29, the Syracuse Post-Standard ran an Associated Press article about the daring rescue of a man standing on the brink of Niagara Falls. Not only is this a story of incredible bravery on the part of the rescue team, it is also a tale of the potential tragedy of uncontrolled pathological gambling.

In late March, a local accountant with a serious gambling problem (local police told AP he was in six-figure debt to the nearby Seneca-Niagara Casino) attempted to commit suicide by going over the Horseshoe Falls. At the last split second, he apparently changed his mind and somehow managed to catch himself and stand upright two feet from the edge of the precipice and 250 feet from shore. With the powerful roaring river relentlessly rushing at his legs and sending chunks of ice barreling by, it was nothing short of miraculous that he held on for over an hour until rescuers could drag him to safety.

Obviously troubled by mounting financial losses, he left a suicide note and waded into the raging Niagara River determined to end it all. From the perspective of his perch on the precipice, his change of heart could not have been more dramatic. But to get back to safety, he needed the help of others.

Can the rest of us learn something from this?

Among their other arguments, the anti-gaming crowd is often quick to raise the issue of uncontrolled compulsive gambling which stereotypically leads to massive financial dislocation and personal bankruptcies in the area adjacent to the casino, etc., etc., etc.

Problem gaming should in no way be taken lightly - it can be as devastating as the reluctant Niagara Falls suicide shows us. But the situation does not appear as hopelessly dire as some might want us to believe.

Gaming is not the only industry whose products, various forms of casino gambling, can induce potentially harmful addictive behavior - alcohol and tobacco both come instantly to mind. While these industries currently operate under varying degrees of advertising restrictions and mandated reparations, their "punishments" have been externally imposed.

The gaming industry, however, has challenged itself to help people whose gambling compulsions are uncontrollable and dangerous. Gaming tribes are again among the leading participants in programs to research gambling-related addictive behavior and treat its victims.

Is this good PR? Unquestionably. Doesn't it also, however, make good business sense to look out for the health and welfare of the clientele? No question about that either.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG) is a national organization, founded in 1996, whose mission is to become "the leading source of science-based research and information on gambling and health, advancing education, prevention, treatment and public policy."

The primary vehicle for NCRG research has been the Institute for Research on Pathological Gaming and Related Disorders at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and the group's annual report for 2002 highlights several areas in which progressive research may help compulsive gamblers. Ongoing NCRG-funded projects include a focus on vulnerable populations that may be at risk of developing gambling related problems such as the elderly, lower income groups, the homeless, college students, casino employees and adults undergoing treatment for mental disorders.

The Center relies on contributions from casino operators, gaming device manufacturers and other players in the gaming industry. Donors from Indian country include the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun, Sandia Casino, Sky City Casino - Pueblo of Acoma, and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Other tribes contribute as well to various compact and state regulatory programs.

Besides the NCRG, a number of other organizations are involved in the effort to understand and treat compulsive gambling including the National Council on Problem Gambling, a number of other privately-funded research centers, state and national gaming trade associations, and various state and tribal regulatory agencies as well. Such programs and efforts deserve continued support from Indian country and beyond.

According to NCRG research, problematic gambling behavior is exhibited by only 1.1 percent of the populace in the United States and Canada. But who is really "responsible" for the damage these people may cause to themselves or others if their gambling gets out of hand - the gambler or the casino?

Casinos offer a form of entertainment that admittedly can induce some patrons, for whatever reason, to lose their best judgment and gamble to excess. But nobody is forcing gamblers into casinos and locking the doors behind them, just as no one is being forced to light a cigarette and inhale.

Yes, a casino may be a great temptation. But as life is full of temptations, people have varying degrees of backbone and resolve with which to deflect or avoid them. In the end, it's up to the individual to take control of his or her life by recognizing a problem and seeking assistance. Why shouldn't the gaming industry help?

The unidentified recalcitrant suicide at Niagara Falls was rightfully placed in psychiatric care after his rescue. According to the AP, he swore the experience changed him and expressed great anguish and remorse over the thought that others could have lost their lives trying to rescue him. Only time will tell if his conversion is genuine.

Sometimes a person must stand for a time on his own personal precipice to not only realize the extent of his troubles but to also understand that most any problem can be addressed and resolved in a satisfactory manner. The fact that the Niagara Falls accountant decided so, even at the last possible instant, and was able to literally hang on for dear life attests to that hope.

With the help of problem gaming researchers and counselors, that personal precipice need not be a real one.