MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) - As the number of casinos in Oklahoma has increased, experts say the number of pathological or problem gamblers also is on the rise.

Problem gambling can begin with meager winnings, and pathological gamblers rarely convert winnings into spending money, but instead use it to fuel their gambling habit, said Wiley Hawell, executive director of the Norman-based Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

“The pathological gambler doesn’t consider it real money,” Hawell said.

In addition to working with problem gamblers, the association also works with casinos in the state, most of which are in the in the business of helping problem gamblers, Hawell said.

The association has brochures in most of the 96 casinos in the state, he said.

Casino employees trained to look for the signs of problem gamblers know their customers, he said. At one casino in the southern part of the state, at least three customers having signs of being problem gamblers have committed suicide because of gambling problems, he said.

Those with addictive disorders have a higher rate of suicide than people without addictive disorders — with problem gamblers having the highest of all —18 percent, Hawell said.

The divorce rate of problem gamblers is 75 percent, where the divorce rate of non-problem gamblers is around 50 percent, he added.

Problem gamblers need help, not moral condemnation, he said.

“They can’t quit (without help) they can’t cut back,” he said. “We want to help.”

Hawell said problem gamblers generally go through four phases: winning, losing, desperation and hopelessness.

Most problem gamblers can go only about two years before they’re found out. He said problem gamblers also lie about why bills aren’t being paid until there’s just no trust left, Hawell said.

They start gambling, “and it’s like a loss of time and space,” he said.

“These were normal people at one time — these aren’t bad people,” he said. “It’s just that gambling takes over their life.”

Some tribes have a program for problem players. Gamblers identify themselves as having a problem and sign a promise not to gamble at the establishments.

If such a person does manage to gamble at one of the casinos without being recognized and wins a jackpot, the jackpot is not paid to them, Hawell said.

“They don’t get that money,” he said. “They have signed a contract agreeing not to collect any winnings. The responsibility of staying away comes to the individual and not the tribe.”

Those winnings are donated to nonprofit organizations —one of which is Hawell’s, he said

His association operates on about $750,000 a year. The state provides about $150,000 of that, Hawell said.

About $3,500 per month goes to manning the association’s Problem Gambling Help Line.