Las Vegas psychologist Robert Hunter pioneered the treatment of problem gambling, caring for thousands of patients over 30 years until his death last week from congestive heart failure. He was 62.
Hunter grew up in Las Vegas and earned degrees at both UNLV and UNR before starting his practice in the 1980s.
He opened the Charter behavioral hospital in Las Vegas, even voicing TV ads that exhorted listeners, “If you don't get help at Charter, please get help somewhere.” He also founded the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas and maintained a general psychology practice.
Hunter’s high profile in the community and in the media earned him the nickname “Las Vegas’ therapist,” but associates remembered him as a dedicated family man. He is survived by a wife, daughter, and three grandchildren.
In an obituary, the family said, “Rob’s heart never failed any of his family, friends or patients, but it failed him.”
Longtime friend and colleague Bo Bernhard, head of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, wrote in a Facebook tribute that Hunter was “a human safety net” to those who knew him, and he left a legacy of treating more problem gamblers than anyone in the world.
“I just remember moments observing folks going in there hurting and walking away laughing,” Bernhard told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Bernhard said Hunter used his extraordinary sense of humor as a way to help people who desperately needed it.
When it came to problem gambling, Bernhard said he empowered people who had a gambling problem by explaining the medical side of their problem.
“He would give them the gift of a very medicalized understanding of their affliction,” he said.
One of those people was Ted Hartwell. Hartwell is an archaeologist at the Desert Research Institute but at one time he had a serious gambling problem.
He was referred to Dr. Hunter by another therapist. Hartwell remembers the exact moment he met Dr. Hunter, even though it was more than 10 years ago.
Hartwell remembers so vividly because it was the moment he could understand that his problem gambling had very much to do with the architecture of the brain.
“It was such an ah-a moment for me," Hartwell remembers, "And he had such a gift for explaining this area of science to the layperson. For the first time, I had an understanding about why I had been in the grips of this inability to stop my gambling.”
He said through Dr. Hunter he was able to understand how his brain responded differently to gambling and ways to change his behavior to address those differences.
Hunter also helped Hartwell find ways to address the small and large stresses of life without turning to gambling to dampen that stress.
Hartwell says it is not just the lives that Dr. Hunter helped like his own but the people that he has gone on to help along with his family and friends.
“I think his true legacy is all of the people he has touched not only the staff that he has trained… but all of the clients who have come through that program whose lives have been touched directly, beyond them all of the people those clients have touched in their recovery,” he said.
Bernhard agrees. He said Dr. Hunter's influence is exponential and reaches around the world.
“Dr. Hunter was very much a Las Vegas intellectual who invited and pioneered a treatment approach that has since been exported to the rest of the planet,” he said.
The Problem Gambling Center of Las Vegas
Bo Bernhard, executive director, International Gaming Institute at UNLV; Ted Hartwell, archaeologist, Desert Research Institute
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