Gambling is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. For most who choose to enjoy a wager, it never becomes more than an enjoyable hobby. However, some people may find that they cannot control their gambling habits. When gambling goes beyond harmless fun and begins creating serious problems in someone’s life, they may be showing signs of gambling addiction.
What is Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction is classed as a mental health condition. It has similarities to other addictions (such as a chemical drug addiction) and other impulse-control disorders (such as pyromania or kleptomania).
In all of these cases, the person with the addiction cannot stop their behavior even when they realize it is hurting themselves or their loved ones. It is important to remember that not everyone suffering from gambling addiction will experience the same symptoms or level of intensity. A few of the most common types of gambling addiction are as follows.
When someone is simply unable to control their desire to gamble.
- A compulsive gambler will continue to play whether they win or lose, regardless of the consequences
- They will also look for opportunities to make bets and wagers even when they already know they cannot afford to lose
- This is also known as pathological gambling
When someone exhibits compulsive gambling symptoms, but only at certain times or during certain periods.
- A binge gambler may appear to be in control of their problem most of the time
- They might go weeks or months without exhibiting any signs of having a gambling addiction
- Their compulsive gambling behaviors will reveal themselves when they start betting, even if it’s only rarely
When someone is not addicted to the point of compulsion, but their habits are not entirely under their control.
- A problem gambler will have some sort of gambling behavior which is disturbing their normal life
- They might find themselves chasing losses or lying to loved ones about their betting habits
- They come to realize that they cannot stop themselves from gambling more and more often
What are the Signs of Gambling Addiction in Adults?
The latest diagnosis criteria (2018) for compulsive gambling disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, is based on at least four of the following signs being present in someone within the past year. These symptoms shouldn’t be considered if they are the result of a separate mental health condition.
- Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired excitement
- Being restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
- Having repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back on or stop gambling
- Frequently thinking about gambling (such as reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next gambling venture, thinking of ways to get money to gamble)
- Often gambling when feeling distressed such as when depressed, guilty, anxious, or helpless
- After losing money gambling, often returning to get even (referred to as ‘chasing your losses’)
- Lying to conceal gambling activity or losses/damages caused by gambling
- Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job or educational/career opportunity because of gambling
- Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling
Please remember that simply looking at this list will not be enough to determine whether you have a gambling addiction. In order to make an accurate diagnosis, you should seek out a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist. It is important that a professional is consulted in order to accurately diagnose and rule out other mental health conditions that may be the cause of these behaviors. This is because individuals with gambling addictions tend to have higher rates of other disorders such as substance use disorders, depressive disorders, and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, in order to make an accurate diagnosis, a trained physician must do a complete evaluation to check that another medical condition is not the cause of these behaviors.
Recognizing You Have a Problem
If you are already aware of your problem, if you feel a problem developing, or your friends or family have voiced concerns about you having a problem: seek help.
It might seem as though the signs of gambling problems are obvious, particularly to those who bet compulsively, but it is surprisingly common for both gamblers and those around them to miss them. This is true in part because many of the issues involved with problem gambling can be rationalized by the person themselves, sometimes effectively masking the problem.
While definitions of gambling addiction and problem gambling vary around the world and between organizations, most professionals agree on the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder.
The American Association of Psychiatry recommend certain very basic self-help strategies to help with cravings if you feel the signs of a problem becoming prevalent.
- Reach out for support by confiding in a trusted friend or going to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting
- Distract yourself with other activities that you enjoy – avoid isolation by looking for healthy ways to socialize
- Postpone your gambling by giving yourself a longer period to wait (it may allow the urge to pass or weaken)
- Try to give yourself a reality check – imagine what will happen after you gamble, and the way it makes you feel
How Common is Gambling Addiction?
It is difficult to find out the exact percentage of the population suffering from problem gambling or an addiction. To diagnose such a problem, the first step often has to come from self-reporting by gamblers themselves. There have been many efforts to estimate the scope of the problem. Most of these studies have come to similar conclusions in recent years.
In the USA, the most commonly reported rates for problem gambling tend to be in the range of 2-3%. An addiction to gambling is somewhat rarer, with 1% or less of the population usually being considered to truly suffer from this condition. Not surprisingly, these figures are higher in areas such as Nevada where gambling plays a big part in the culture. The state has a dedicated organization for problem gambling. Another interesting demographic is that reports of problem gambling and gambling addiction occur in men more than women.
It is equally difficult to pinpoint how many people seek treatment. While resources for those who find they have problems are readily available, many don’t seek out organizations or information to help them. Some people may eventually overcome their gambling issue through changes in their behavior, while many others continue to suffer for years or even decades without seeking help.
Negative Effects of Gambling
Some of the negative effects of gambling are readily apparent, while others may be less obvious.
Of course, constant betting can lead individuals into severe financial trouble. A compulsive gambler can quickly accrue large debts, perhaps even resulting in poverty due to the strain from the costs of gambling, the loss of a home, or even complete bankruptcy. Financial problems can even lead to legal issues, as some compulsive gamblers will resort to theft or other means in order to finance their habit.
One of the most important negative effects to recognize is the mental strain that gambling problems can put on an individual. The actions taken as a result of the disorder can cause rifts in important relationships or jeopardize a person’s career. Many other conditions are linked to a gambling addiction, which can be developed prior to or after suffering from this. Compulsive gambling can also lead to depression or even suicide.
A gambling addiction can also have repercussions on the people closest to the addict. According to statistics, families of those who are suffering from this type of behavior are more likely to experience child abuse or other forms of domestic violence. Even children who don’t directly suffer from their parents’ problem gambling may later develop issues such as depression, substance abuse, or behavioral problems.
How to Help Someone with a Gambling Addiction
It can sometimes be difficult to tell if a loved one has a gambling problem. For instance, these are some initial signs that something could be wrong if you notice that someone you care about:
- has started clearly lying about their gambling
- is letting relationships with you or others deteriorate in order to wager more
- begins to state or suggest that they might have a gambling problem
- has started borrowing money regularly, or has been taking money or selling items
- is spending more and more time gambling
- spends money gambling despite unpaid bills or lack of necessities like food
Then it’s probably time to take them seriously. They may be looking for help but are afraid to ask or fully admit the extent of the problem. Once you realize a friend or relative has a problem, it’s important not to be seen as judgmental or threatening to the person with the gambling problem.
One of the most important steps that can be taken by family and friends of a compulsive gambler is to educate themselves. You must be supportive, make sure that you’re not doing anything to enable the gambler and participate in the treatment process as appropriate. For instance, while you shouldn’t offer to pay off their gambling debts – as this would enable their behavior – you might help them find financial counseling or other services that could help them with those debts.
Helping someone seek treatment
There’s no guaranteed way to convince someone to seek treatment, but it can often help to let them know how their wagering has affected their life, and the lives of those around them.
One method that is often used is an intervention. This is where family and/or close friends confront the compulsive gambler to voice their concern with their behavior. While alone these interventions are rarely successful in changing behavior, they can be invaluable in convincing someone who needs help to seek it. The tone of any such intervention should be positive and loving yet concerned. At no point should the tone of these messages be confrontational or heated. While interventions can be conducted by the family and loved ones themselves, it is suggested to seek guidance and support from a professional interventionist.
Remember that helplines such as the National Problem Gambling Network (800-522-4700) can advise friends and family who are worried about their loved one’s gambling behavior.