BY NHIEN NGUYEN
Mike Lee* was referred to Asian Counseling & Referral Service (ACRS) for his mental health problems. He was anxious, emotional and complained about people taking advantage of him. He even made several attempts to commit suicide.
After working with Lee, ACRS Mental Health Case Manager Louis Leung discovered the source of his client’s mental health problems. Lee had been harboring a terrible secret from his counselor and his family: a gambling problem that left him with a loss of his life savings, $80,000 in credit card debt and a near foreclosure on his house.
ACRS has developed a new problem gambling program to address cases such as Lee’s. The program is one of two in King County funded by the Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, managed by Washington State Problem Gambling Advisory Council. ACRS offers counseling in at least 10 different Asian languages.
Connie Cheng, adult mental health clinical manager of ACRS, says that casinos are attractive to many Asian immigrants, who may have trouble with relationships, adapting to their new world and language barriers. Many of these immigrants work late night shifts at restaurants.
After they go home at night, there’s not too much entertainment except 24-hour casinos, she says.
Casinos become the information center — a place with familiar faces and a place to socialize.
Cheng says that casinos have a good marketing plan to remove barriers for Asians immigrants — they have a free bus that comes to Chinatown, provide free drinks and offer a cheap buffet.
“We’re not against gambling, but problem gambling,” says Cheng.
As an immigrant from China in 1972, Lee worked at an electronic company in Seattle for over 20 years. Lee’s problem gambling started after his first marriage ended after two and a half years.
“The failure of the marriage made a big impact on his life,” said Leung.
At first, Lee turned to alcohol to escape from his reality. Then a co-worker introduced him to the casino, namely the slot machines. Lee began to go one to two times a week, then every night.
Soon, Lee carried $50 – $60,000 in credit card debt.
Fortunately, Lee had a strong relationship with his brother and sister, who bailed him out of his debt, hoping to put him back on the right track.
Cheng says each problem gambler can affect at least eight to nine other people.
In 1995, Lee remarried. However, the second marriage did not work well in the beginning. Always arguing with his wife, Lee returned to the casino, where his gambling problem became worse. He gambled using his house to make a loan and lost all the money.
Cheng says problem gambling is a multi-faceted and complex issue. The issue can affect many areas of the problem gambler’s life, from financial to relationships. It can lead to domestic violence, problems at work, legal issues and substance abuse.
At the beginning, Lee didn’t know how to face the reality of losing his house, says Leung. He became lonely, depressed and psychotic to the point that he could no longer maintain his job.
As his debt grew to $200,000, Lee became more contentious with his wife. As marital clashes increased, Lee’s wife threatened to leave him and take their two sons with her.
Cheng says it’s important to educate families on how to deal with problem gamblers. Asian culture generally hides problems. She emphasizes that the ACRS program is not just for the problem gambler, but also for his or her family.
To help Lee overcome his problem gambling, Leung worked closely with Lee’s family and wife.
“My goal was to save his marriage. If it failed again, he’s going to die,” said Leung.
Leung, who is familiar with the casino industry, educated his client on how casinos really operate.
“They’re only looking for people to pay their bills,” says Leung.
To help his client understand casinos, Leung discussed the odds of winning. He explained the vicious cycle of winning money one night and then going back again, just to lose that money. He also taught Lee problem-solving skills.
“I wanted to win money, buy a new car, pay off my debts,” says Lee, about why he continued to go to the casinos.
Part of the ACRS problem gambling program includes solving financial problems, giving clients better coping skills and linking them to other resources.
Lee is now extremely stable, according to Leung. He participates in ACRS’ vocational program, volunteers at the ACRS food bank and has a membership at the YMCA. Leung may even help Lee set up his own small business.
Cheng says activities such as this help their clients feel more significant and have self-worth.
Two months ago, Lee was put to the test. His wife urged him to come along with her to a trip to Las Vegas. She offered him $50 to gamble for fun. Lee refused it.
If not for ACRS, Lee says, “I’d be homeless. My second marriage would have failed.”
Now, when Lee’s wife tells him to do something, he doesn’t complain.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.