The first time I met Pete was on a cold winter night at a doughnut shop on Sherbrooke St. W. Seated at the counter, several stools apart, we got into conversation. He was in his 30s, unemployed, but donating his time and skills to help in a project building homes for the needy in St. Henri. Over the next while, I often ran into him. He appeared to be a well-balanced young man who enjoyed composing songs on his guitar and at one time had envisioned a career in music. He owned a little red truck, which was old but was his pride and joy. He talked about happy memories of trips to Cape Cod with his dad. He talked about a beautiful apartment that his mom lived in.
When he learned that, by profession, I worked in prevention and treatment of problem gambling he confessed that he used to have a problem with video lottery terminals. He said he hadn't played them in more than two months. I congratulated him and told him that if the urge to play recurred, he should phone me and we'd meet for coffee instead. He did call me on two occasions, but both times it was after he gambled. He said he hadn't lost much, but he had played and thought it important that he admit it to me.
On one of his visits to my office I loaned him a book written by a VLT addict, herself 2 1/2 years into recovery. I told him that we sell this book, but I didn't want him to buy it. I just wanted him to read it. He phoned the next day to say that he had finished the book but insisted on buying it, so that he could refer back to it in times of need.
For a long time after that our paths didn't cross. Then, about two weeks ago, Pete called me in search of advice. He had sold his truck and not reported it on his social-assistance statement. They had found out through his bank records and he now feared serious reprisals. I suggested that he contact a legal-aid lawyer and get advice. The signal that I missed was the fact that he had sold his truck, his prized possession.
I left the country several days later to attend an international conference on gambling and risk-taking. On returning to Montreal, the news reached me. Pete, no longer able to cope with the albatross of VLT addiction, had made the ultimate decision. He committed suicide.
I never knew Pete well, but I lost a friend this week.
It would be comforting to think that Pete's suicide was an isolated incident, but it was not. On Nov. 25, 1999, The Gazette reported that, according to the office of the coroner, there were 15 reported gambling-related suicides that year alone. Last week the updated figures were released and the number of known gambling- related suicides for 1999 soared to 27. These are the ones officially registered, only because in each case a suicide note had been written specifically referring to gambling. There were 24 men and three women, aged 26 to 71, and most had problems with VLTs.
The sad fact is that these numbers are not even the tip of the problem- gambling iceberg. How many victims are not reported? Sadder still is the fact that, due to lack of government-funded public education and awareness programs, it is unlikely that the first time a person plays these machines he or she has any knowledge what a deadly addiction the VLTs can become.
In Quebec our VLTs can be played for as little as five cents at a time. Just imagine, for a couple of dollars you can buy an addiction that will last you a lifetime.
Prevention and treatment of problem gambling must become a government priority. In Quebec, the ease with which one can find a video lottery terminal within minutes of the home or workplace is creating a major crisis. Gamblers Anonymous groups are growing rapidly and attendance is largely comprised of VLT players. No other form of gambling hits as swiftly and as hard as this one. People seem to bottom out both emotionally and financially in record time. Those who had never even entertained the thought of committing a criminal act are now stealing to support their gambling. Of course, in the mind of a compulsive gambler caught in the spiral of chasing losses, they are only "borrowing" the money. They have every intention of replacing it all as soon as they win.
Unfortunately for many, that win never comes and the result is loss of job, loss of family, loss of business and the ultimate loss: the loss of life. It is well documented that compulsive gamblers have the highest rate of attempted suicide of all addictions.
For all those who seek help, it is the responsibility of our government to make treatment accessible with minimum delay and at no cost. The cause of the problem can be found in every neighbourhood. So can the Petes of this world. So then, should be the treatment.