VA is doing little to address growing concern about vets’ problem gambling.
After risking their lives in combat, many vets don’t feel that rolling the dice for money is that big a gamble. But a number of authorities are concluding that combat vets are at higher risk to become problem gamblers, and the VA is doing little to address that problem.
In the current edition of the American Journal on Addictions, Drs. Joe Westermeyer of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and Jose Canive of the Albuquerque VA Medical Center reported on a gambling study that involved nearly 2,000 veterans from VA centers and community clinics in Albuquerque, N.M., and in Minneapolis.
“The prevalence rates of gambling problems and pathological gambling among veterans receiving VA health care exceeded those rates reported in the general population by two to four times,” their study concluded. “Compared to other populations, female and younger veterans were at particular high risk.”
And the study predicted that the problems may worsen because the proportion of problem gamblers to pathological gamblers was high.
“Many gamblers may still be in the early stages of their problematic gambling careers,” the study explained. “And the prevalence of pathological gambling may yet increase notably among veterans in the coming years.”
Veterans showed a 2 percent lifetime prevalence rate of pathological gambling, double the 1 percent rate in the nation’s general population. The study also found the lifetime prevalence rate for problem gambling among veterans at 8.8 percent, and the concern is that many of the problem gamblers could become pathological gamblers.
The study also cited two earlier studies. One involved 412 Minneapolis vets receiving VA mental health care services; 15 percent were lifetime pathological gamblers and another 25 percent had one or more lifetime gambling symptoms. In an Ohio residential program for homeless vets with substance abuse problems, 14 percent were pathological gamblers.
“These findings imply that the VA health care system should consider screening for problem gambling and pathological gambling,” concluded the study by Westermayer, Carnive and three colleagues. “Developing low-cost, efficacious, preventive interventions is also warranted.”
The study echoed conclusions set forth in a letter from the National Council on Problem Gambling to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki six months ago.
“Gambling addiction is a serious health problem that affects veterans and active-duty service members,” said the letter from NCPG Executive Director Keith S. Whyte. “It is highly co-occurring with other serious conditions and complicates the treatment of these disorders. In addition, gambling addiction has disastrous consequences for the veteran and his or her family.”
Whyte noted that 1 percent to 3 percent of the American public experience gambling problems in any given year, but “studies consistently find rates among age-matched veterans are significantly higher, and highest among minorities. Rates are even higher among veterans seeking treatment for some other disorder.”
Whyte cited the following statistics:
- Studies of veterans utilizing VA treatment services found 10 percent were pathological or problems gamblers.
- A community survey of vets found that 9 percent of American Indians and 4 percent of Hispanics had a pathological gambling problem at some time in their lives.
- Vets in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder may be as much as 60 times more likely to have a gambling problem than age-matched members of the general population.
- Among veterans hospitalized on a VA inpatient psychiatric unit, 28 percent were classified as problem gamblers and another 12 percent as pathological gamblers.
- Rates of depression among vets with pathological gambling problems have been shown to be as high as 76 percent.
- And “suicide is extremely common, with 40 percent of veterans seeking treatment for gambling reporting suicide attempts.”
The National Council on Problem Gambling recommended a two-part study of Veterans Health Administration patients to determine the severity of gambling problems and to assess the VHA’s readiness to address problem gambling issues among vets.
Whyte’s letter noted that the House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Committee had already requested such a study and development of a treatment program for problem VHA gamblers.
“Problem gambling programs may provide cost savings for VHA through improved recovery rates, decreased demand in current substance abuse and mental health care programs, and a reduction in the social costs generated by untreated problem and pathological gamblers,” wrote Whyte. “Most importantly, it will ensure veterans and their families receive the best possible services and enjoy the highest quality of life possible.”
Despite repeated requests, the VA hasn’t said whether Shinseki had ever acted on the NCPG letter.
However, Whyte said neither he nor the congressional committee has received a response from the VA.