Just before 2000, Dr. James Whelan and his staff at the University of Memphis Psychological Services Center saw a patient exhibiting signs of depression. With the patient also struggling with a gambling issue, someone asked Whelan if he knew of problem gambling resources.
“My joke about this is we did what good academic psychologists should do, and that is, we sent a graduate student to the library,” Whelan said.
Whelan and graduate students found that while research on problem gambling existed, quality research often made outdated assumptions about gambling addiction. Whelan’s interest was piqued.
“My second joke about this is my friend and I just sort of looked at each other and said, ‘This stuff is so easy to do, even we could have an impact,’” Whelan said.
Self-deprecating humor aside, Whelan wanted to address problem gambling, and the psychologist had the credentials to make an impact in the industry. In the two decades since, Whelan has helped the University of Memphis become a leader in Tennessee — and the country — in problem gambling research and treatment.
Memphis helps Tennessee become leader
Whelan currently directs The Institute for Gambling Education and Research (T.I.G.E.R.) and the University of Memphis Gambling Clinic. He’s spent 20 years researching the best ways to treat problem gambling, especially as wagering habits change. Mobile sports betting, for example, launched on Nov. 1, 2020, across Tennessee.
One of Whelan’s points of focus is getting people who need help into treatment. He believes research over the years has yielded successful methods to help problem gamblers, but there’s a stigma around betting that often keeps people away from seeking help.
East Tennessee State University, thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, opened the state’s second gambling clinic this summer. The clinic falls under the T.I.G.E.R. umbrella, and Whelan is excited about how the two clinics can collaborate to tackle problem gambling issues, including the topic of how to get those in need into treatment.
Tennessee's sole clinic for problem gambling in the state of Tennessee was at the University of Memphis — until now.https://t.co/LYrybYxPsQ
— WJHL (@WJHL11) August 30, 2022
Dr. Meredith Ginley, a former student of Whelan’s, leads the ETSU clinic, which focuses on helping those in rural and urban communities in Appalachia. The ETSU clinic also has a special emphasis on tele-health practices, something Whelan believes is important in today’s technology-driven world.
“In the next six months, we’re hoping to roll out a website, which I think is critical because it allows people to ask questions without being able to be public and dealing with shame related to the stigma,” Whelan said. “The website will be a portal for people to get information. As we develop this past six months, we’ll be able to do some online treatment.”
Eventually, portal users could also schedule appointments online, again avoiding any potential apprehension around having to visit a physical location to schedule an appointment.
“In the next five years, our partnership with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will make Tennessee a leader in managing gambling harms experienced by the people living in our communities,” Ginley said in a press release.
The future of problem gambling treatment
Prior to legalized mobile sports wagering, the average age of a patient visiting Whelan’s clinic was about 50. Now that average age is closer to 30.
Gambling and its related problems are constantly evolving, which means the research of T.I.G.E.R. is important in making sure Tennesseeans are receiving the most updated treatments possible. Treatment options change, and Whelan, Ginley, and others are working to ensure they’re offering the best options, especially in today’s digital era.
“We’ve done a little research that shows we get some benefits from making [treatment] more interactive,” Whelan said.
In addition to exploring new treatment methods, Whelan wants to look more closely into the relationship between gambling addiction and other addictions. How does alcohol or drug use impact a person’s gambling? How can that guide treatment?
It’s worth noting, however, that there are noteworthy differences between substance abuse and gambling addiction.
“No one says, ‘If I just have one more six-pack, it’s going to solve all my problems,’” Ginley said in the press release. “But any time you gamble, there’s an actual chance that you could win all this money that would solve all your problems. So the cognitive processes and intervention methods are a bit different, and that’s something T.I.G.E.R. has learned a lot about that will allow us to provide specialized care for this population.”
Despite describing the effort of staying on top of new gambling trends as “exhausting,” Whelan didn’t lack energy when discussing the future of problem gambling initiatives in Tennessee. He believes the state can be on “the cutting edge” of treatments in future years, giving other states a roadmap to help others.
Whelan’s hope is for Tennessee and the country to go from saying, “This is a critical international public health crisis,” to, “This is a public health crisis, and we know how to address it.”
“I think we’re on the top of that game,” Whelan concluded.