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Alcoholics and compulsive gamblers cast out into the cold

30 April 2012 2,249 views 3 Comments

THE issue of gambling addiction is still a political hot potato that no one seems too keen to handle. The issue is wider than just poker machines and the ponies, however, and we should also look at the addiction to alcohol, which seems to have been largely forgotten. Smokers are pariahs and problem gamblers objects of pity while the drinkers drink on. Meanwhile the alcoholic or compulsive gambler (often these two problems are combined) still receive little help in Australia. So, too, their families.

Recently Christopher Lawford Kennedy, the only son of actor Peter Lawford and Pat Kennedy and nephew of John F. Kennedy, addressed the Canberra Press Club. Himself free of alcohol and other drugs for the past 24 years with the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Lawford Kennedy pointed out that ”for every $1 invested in rehabilitation programs it saves the community approximately $8.00” – which surely is an excellent return on investment by anybody’s standards.

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Although relatively little attention is paid to the entrenched problems of addiction in Australia, there is some recent good news. In mid-April an Australian-based treatment centre dealing with the issues relating to alcoholism and compulsive gambling was officially opened in the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield. Its name is Oakdene House.

Dr Rob Hunter from Las Vegas, a renowned expert on addictions, addressed the attendees at the opening as official patron. Hunter studied under Dr Rob Custer, who was arguably the first clinician to recognise pathological gambling as a mental disorder. Hunter, who was responsible for opening the world’s first problem gambling centre in Las Vegas, attributes his 90 per cent success rate to a holistic approach to the treatment of problem gamblers.

”I can give the clinical therapy and counselling provided. However, I can categorically say that unless it is supported through 12 Step Fellowship programs such as Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a significantly lower success rate.” In fact these days Hunter won’t treat clients who don’t attend 12 Step Fellowship meetings. And in a revolutionary move, although Hunter is not an addict himself, all the staff who work at his Las Vegas centre are recovering alcoholics and gambling addicts.

Hunter spoke at the opening of Oakdene House about the social and economic cost of addictions. He pointed out that approximately 60 per cent of the patients he treats have dual or multiple addictions. Moreover, in his opinion, the pathological gamblers he deals with are genuinely suffering from an illness. ”Just recently”, he said. ”I treated one of the kindest, most caring family men you could wish for. Yet after gambling three pay cheques in a row, his wife had to leave him and take the children”. Unfortunately the end results of untreated pathological gamblers are ridiculously insane actions and decisions based on virtually no thought at all. Attempting to discuss sane and responsible behaviour with a person in the depths of addiction is virtually impossible.

Significantly, Hunter’s data demonstrates that the success rate of his clients who are ”forced” to attend therapy by the police or the courts is almost the same as those who attend voluntarily. This demonstrates my long-held contention that, in regard to addiction, there is no wrong reason for doing the right thing. Thus it does not matter if people attend AA or GA to placate the police or their family. What matters is that they do attend. Also it doesn’t matter why alcoholics stop drinking or addicts stop gambling or using drugs. What matters is that they do. And as AA and GA are by far the most successful agencies countering addictions, I often say to alcoholics and other addicts, ”Why not avail yourselves of the best?”

Like the Las Vegas Problem Gambling Centre, Oakdene House’s ethos revolves around treatment and counselling and working with the 12 step programs. Oakdene House is a registered not-for-profit charity offering its services at no cost. Its sole purpose is to attract people who seek help, whose lives have spiralled out of control owing to alcohol and gambling. The centre’s philosophy is that the diseases of alcoholism and compulsive gambling have no absolute cure, but that addicts can learn to recover from addiction, one day at a time. Their treatment plan is based on complete abstinence and the philosophy of AA, NA, and GA.

Oakdene House’s liaison officer, ex-South Sydney footballer Tom Simpson – himself a recovering alcoholic and gambling addict , says that ”abstinence is one thing, but we seek for our people to have long-term recovery and that’s where the 12 step programs come in”. Oakdene House recognises the important role that medical science has to play in mental disorders such as these, but emphasises the need for 12 step programs, which recognise that addiction is a health problem and not a moral problem.

So while the politicians, health officials and others under the media spotlight debate the interconnected issues of addictions, the folks at Oakdene House are getting on with the business of doing something practical about it. More power to them.

For details see www.oakdenehouse.org.au.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey published by NewSouth Books: Sydney.

‘The Canberra Times’, April 30, 2012, page 9.


  • Peter Smith said:

    Treating addicts

    The other side of the Oakdene House story (”Alcoholics and compulsive gamblers cast out into the cold”, April 30, p9) is just how much it reflects the amateur nature of treatment available to addicts in Australia.

    As an alcoholic who was treated in the late 1980s at a specialist National Health Service addiction treatment centre (the Robert Smith Unit) in Britain, I am one of the lucky Australian addicts whose life-threatening illness was treated as seriously as cancer or renal failure. Here in Australia, treatment is left to the charity sector with, at best, alcohol and other drug (AOD)-accredited counsellors at the front line of the meagre commitment to treatment. As Ross Fitzgerald notes, such meagre investment in public health is an economic nonsense.

    Peter Smith, Mount Archer, Qld
    The Canberra Times, May 2, 2012

  • Peter Thornton said:

    For a long time politicians have confused the horrendous extremes of social problems with the everyday behaviour of common or garden variety (if such a classification exists) alcoholics and/or degenerate gamblers. In the increasing merit driven society that is modern Australia, frowning upon those who assist others to rise with their class rather than above it is no longer feared as a political peril. Politicians of all colours have a vested interest in serving an electorate of individuals who place great value on sweeping under the rug anything that isn’t self-serving or self-enriching by creating policies that pit compassionate or empathetic concerns against each other.

  • Garry said:

    The stigma attached to gambling in general does nothing to help those who are addicted to it. It feeds isolation and serves to drive them further underground. I like when you referred to addiction as being a health, not moral, problem. I believe this to be true. I wish several other people would.

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