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High rate of problem gambling among Indian veterans


American Indian veterans are more likely to be problem gamblers than their Hispanic and non-Indian counterparts, according to a study published this month.

Based on a survey of hundreds of veterans in two different regions of the country, researchers came to a striking conclusion. Regardless of tribal heritage, gender or geographic location, Indian veterans were more than twice as likely to exhibit signs of pathological gambling during their lives than Hispanic veterans and than the U.S. population as a whole.

Of the more than 510 Indian veterans in the Great Lakes region, 9.8 percent were problem gamblers, according to study. And of the more than 200 Indian veterans in the Southwest, 10.0 percent were problem gamblers.

In comparison, the researchers found that 4.3 percent of Hispanic veterans showed signs of pathological gambling during their lives. Of the general U.S. population, prior studies have shown rates between 0.9 percent and 3.4 percent.

The reason for the high rate among Indian veterans is probably due to the explosion of the $18.5 billion tribal casino industry, according to the authors of the study that appeared in this month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health. "American Indian veterans have a higher lifetime prevalence of pathological gambling than do Hispanic veterans owing to higher exposure to legal gambling in American Indian communities," the researchers wrote.

But even though Indian gaming has grown dramatically in the past decade, it is not the root cause of the problem, according to the study. The researchers found that certain psychological problems -- such as alcohol abuse and depression -- correlated with the high rates of pathological gambling among Indian veterans.

The correlation shows that "early interventions for pathological gambling should consider common psychiatric conditions rather than focusing on pathological gambling alone," wrote Dr. Joseph Westermeye of the Department Veterans Affairs in Minneapolis, the lead author of the study.

A total of 718 Indian veterans took part in the survey, which was conducted at VA clinics, pow-wows, tribal offices and other locations. Most of the veterans in the Southwest were members of Pueblo tribes and the Navajo Nation while the veterans in the Great Lakes were mainly Ojibwe and Sioux. Researchers also included an equal number of urban Indian and reservation veterans.

Despite this diversity, the study found that location and tribal heritage -- Navajo culture, for example, frowns upon gambling -- didn't affect the high rates of problem gambling among Indian veterans.

"At the time of the study, gambling casinos had been present for about 10 years," the authors wrote. "Casinos were located on numerous American Indian reservations and on the outskirts of the urban areas in both regions."

Among Indian and Hispanic veterans who are problem gamblers, an overwhelming majority, 70 percent, had been diagnosed with substance abuse, anxiety disorders or affective disorders like depression, the researchers reported. "Veterans with any of these disorders were 2 to 3 times more likely than those with none of these disorders to report pathological gambling," the study said.

For example, 35.2 percent of the Indian veterans had been diagnosed with alcohol abuse at one point in their lives. And 14.2 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being in a combat zone can increase the risk of this type of stress, the researchers suggested.

Tribes across the nation have contributed millions to problem gambling programs. "Our facilities are for entertainment and we take our responsibility to those who abuse our services seriously," National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. "According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, tribal governments, in general, are more responsive to problem gaming issues than state governments."

"Indian people are compassionate people," Chris Karnes, a member of the Tuscarora Nation of New York and lawyer and an attorney who works for tribes, said at a forum on gaming. "They strive to take care of their own. They strive to cure others."

But some critics say tribes aren't doing enough to address the social and moral issues that come along with gaming. "When did we start caring about ourselves and stop caring about others in the world?" said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, a member of the Seneca Nation of New York and Methodist Church official who opposes the expansion of tribal casinos.

Get the Study:
Abstract: Lifetime Prevalence of Pathological Gambling Among American Indian and Hispanic American Veterans (American Journal of Public Health May 2005) Note: Full study requires subscription or paid access.

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Association - http://www.indiangaming.org
National Council on Problem Gambling - http://www.ncpgambling.org
American Journal of Public Health - http://www.ajph.org