Gambling is an activity that is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. For most people who choose to enjoy a little wager, it never becomes more than an enjoyable hobby. However, some individuals may find that they cannot control their gambling habits. When gambling goes beyond being harmless fun and begins creating serious problems in someone's life, that person may be showing gambling addiction symptoms.
Gambling addiction is classed as a mental health disorder and has similarities to other addictions, such as a chemical addiction.
It is similar to other impulse-control disorders, such as pyromania, in which a person compulsively sets fires, or kleptomania, which results in compulsive theft. In all of these cases, the person with the addiction has an inability to stop their behavior even when they realize it is hurting themselves or their loved ones.
When talking about a gambling addiction or problem, it's important to realize that the issue has many different facets, and not all those held under its sway suffer the same symptoms, or even experience the same intensity. A few of the more common types of gambling addiction include:
- Compulsive Gambling: This is likely the type of behavior that comes to mind when most people think of a gambling addiction. Here a person is unable to control their desire to gamble. The 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 know they cannot afford to lose. This is also known as pathological gambling.
- Binge Gambling: As the name would suggest, this has a person exhibit compulsive gambling symptoms, but only at certain times. A binge gambler may appear to be in control of their problem, as they might go weeks or months without exhibiting any signs of being a problem gambler. However, their compulsive gambling behaviors will reveal themselves when they do start betting, even if these occasions are rare.
- Problem Gambling: Even if a person is not entirely addicted to the point of compulsion, it is possible that their gambling habits may not be entirely in their control. A problem gambler is someone who has some sort of gambling behavior that is disturbing their normal life. This can often be identified when a person begins to find themselves chasing losses, lying to loved ones about their betting habits, or starts to realize that they cannot seem to stop themselves from gambling more and more often.
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that 2.7% of American adults are pathological or problem gamblers. - National Opinion Research Center.
Figuring out what percentage of the population suffers from compulsive or problem gambling is difficult, as much of the effort to diagnose such a problem often needs to come from self-reporting by the gamblers themselves. However, there have been many efforts to estimate the scope of the problem, and most of these studies have come to similar (if not identical conclusions).
The most commonly reported rates for problem gambling tend to be in the range of 2-3%. Actual pathological 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 where gambling is a major part of the culture.
For instance, a 2002 report found that about 3-4% of Nevada adults could be considered likely pathological gamblers. The percentage of gamblers who develop gambling problems is also somewhat higher than the overall population, though these numbers have converged as most adults have now gambled at some time due to the rapid expansion of both land-based and online casinos and poker rooms.
It is difficult to pinpoint just how many people seek treatment. While resources for those who find they have problems are readily available, most do not seek out the organizations or information that exists to help them. Some problem gamblers eventually overcome the issue on their own through changes in their behavior, while many others continue to suffer from some level of problem gambling for years or decades without seeking help.
On a very basic level, it can be said that problem gambling is caused by a person's inability to control their behavior. What exactly underlies this problem, however, can vary between individuals, with several factors contributing to the disorder.
One of the major causes of problem gambling is biological in nature. As mentioned earlier, there are biological reasons to believe that some aspects of compulsive gambling are similar to those in other addictions, and brain imaging has shown that a gambling win can produce a neurological response similar to the response seen when a cocaine addict receives a dose of the drug. Deficiencies in norepinephrine and serotonin have also been linked to compulsive behaviors.
Other factors can also contribute to problem gambling, even if they are not direct causes. For instance, the way an individual thinks about gambling may have a role in whether that person subsequently develops a problem. Many believe that the gambler's fallacy provides a seemingly logical rationalization for such compulsive behavior.
The gambler's fallacy is the belief that a series of independent events will affect the odds of future independent events. For instance, if a fair coin is flipped five times, and lands on heads each time, the odds of the next flip resulting in a tails is still 50% - as we said, the coin is fair. However, an individual believing in the gambler's fallacy is likely to believe that the coin is more likely to land on tails in the upcoming flips to "make up" for the previous results. This can provide additional motivation for a compulsive gambler to chase losses, believing that their luck must change soon.
One point that is repeatedly made throughout problem gambling literature is that outside sources do not cause these behaviors to manifest. While stress may trigger behavior in someone who is a problem gambler, difficulties in one's personal or professional life are not the cause of such compulsions. Similarly, while the existence of legalized gambling in an area will give people more opportunities to gamble, it would be inaccurate to say that casinos or other gambling outlets directly cause problem gambling. Often, even in the absence of legalized gambling, those with a compulsive habit will find illegal means to wager on whatever they can. However, it has been observed that fast-paced games are more likely to illicit problem behaviors - a slot machine with rapid bet placement, for instance, might be more attractive to those with a problem than a lottery that can only be played once per day.
There are also several risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a gambling problem. Those who have addictions to alcohol or some drugs, such as cocaine, have shown increased vulnerability to compulsive gambling. Several psychological disorders have also been identified as risk factors for problem gambling, including schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder.
While it might seem as though the symptoms of problem gambling should be obvious, particularly to those who bet compulsively, it is surprisingly common for both gamblers and those around them to miss the signs of a problem. This is true in part because many of the issues involved with problem gambling can be rationalized by the gambler themselves, sometimes effectively masking the problem.
While definitions of problem gambling vary around the world and from organization to organization, most professionals agree on the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder. For instance, the American Psychiatric Association has come up with a list of ten diagnostic criteria that can be used to diagnose compulsive or pathological gambling in an individual. Those criteria are as follows:
- Thinks constantly about gambling
- Feels the need to increase bets to sustain thrill
- Exhibits agitation when cutting back
- Gambles as an escape from problems or to reduce anxiety
- Chases losses
- Lies to conceal their gambling activity
- Finances their bets through illegal acts
- Jeopardizes significant relationships to gamble
- Relies on financial bailouts from friends, family or others to meet gambling debts
- Fails in efforts to control or stop gambling
One need not show all of these symptoms to be diagnosed as a problem gambler. In order to be considered a pathological gambler, an individual must meet at least five of the above criteria, and they must not be the result of a separate mental health problem. While problem gambling is more loosely defined, an individual who exhibits any of these symptoms may wish to take a closer look at their betting habits, and someone that regularly exhibits multiple criteria may well have a gambling problem.
However, simply looking at this list is not enough to conclusively determine whether you have a gambling addiction. In order to make an accurate diagnosis, a trained physician must do a complete evaluation of an individual to ensure that some other medical condition is not causing these behaviors. This might include a physical exam and an interview in order to perform a full mental health evaluation.
Gambling addiction statistics reveal that well over $500 billion is spent as annual wagers
- PBS.org, Gambling Addiction Statistics.
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. Worse still, these financial problems can sometimes 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 problem gambling can put on an individual. The actions taken as a result of the disorder can cause rifts in important relationships with friends and family, or jeopardize a person's career. 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.
There are many ways in which a compulsive gambler might seek treatment. There is no single treatment that is considered to be the standard way to treat gambling addiction.
The most effective component to treating a gambling problem appears to be psychotherapy. With the help of a trained professional, counseling has a relatively high success rate in correcting problem behaviors. One reason why this approach may be particularly successful is the fact that the majority of individuals who have a gambling addiction have at least one other psychiatric problem; this means that, in addition to treating the addiction, a psychologist or psychiatrist may be able to help with related mental health issues as well.
Another important resource for problem gamblers is Gamblers' Anonymous (GA). In conjunction with psychotherapy, GA has been found to help many recovering problem gamblers by providing them with an outlet to talk about their challenges and experiences with others who have gone through similar situations. Self-help efforts and peer support systems have also been shown to aid in recovery, and as many as one-third of all individuals may recover without any formal treatment.
While no medications have been specifically designed to treat gambling addiction, some have shown promise in reducing the urge to wager, or the feelings of excitement that come while betting. These include antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, medications that have been used to address other addictions, and certain SSRIs.
Myths and Facts about Problem Gambling
MYTH: Gambling is only a problem if the gambler can't afford his or her losses.
FACT: While financial troubles are definitely a common and serious consequence of gambling addiction, one can have a serious problem without any financial hardship. For instance, gambling could be causing them to ignore work, relationships, or activities that were once important to them.
MYTH: If someone gambles only occasionally, they cannot be a problem gambler.
FACT: Many problem gamblers miss the signs of their behavior becoming a compulsion because they only gamble on certain occasions, such as trips to a casino or during a particular sports season. However, if the wagering they do at these times affects their life negatively, or otherwise fits the criteria for compulsive gambling, they still have a problem.
MYTH: Responsible people don't have gambling problems.
FACT: A gambling problem can develop in anyone, and it has nothing to do with how responsible that person normally behaves. While problem gambling may lead a person to take irresponsible actions, it's a disorder that leads to a loss of control – not a sign that a person is generally irresponsible in life.
MYTH: Loved ones often contribute to - and/or share responsibility for - problem gambling.
FACT: While problem gamblers will often find ways to rationalize their behavior, their friends and family are not responsible for an individual's behavior. This can be particularly hard to understand for parents of a compulsive gambler, who often blame themselves for their child's problem.
MYTH: One way to help a problem gambler is by paying off their debts or helping them out of their financial troubles.
FACT: This one can be very difficult for relatives and close friends to accept, but it's often counterproductive to pay off the debts of a problem gambler. In many cases, rather than solving the problem, it will only allow the gambler to continue their placing more bets, as they now feel they have a safety net should they find themselves in financial trouble again.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell if a loved one has a gambling problem. However, many of the criteria we mentioned above that can be used to determine if you are a problem gambler can also be used to look for signs of trouble in someone you care about. For instance, if you notice that someone you care about has started clearly lying about their gambling, or that they are letting your relationship or their relationship with others deteriorate in order to wager more, those are signs that something could be wrong. In addition, if they begin to state or suggest that they might have a gambling problem, 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.
According to experts, the most important step that can be taken by family members and friends of a compulsive gambler is to educate themselves about the problem. Family and friends should be supportive and participate in the treatment process as appropriate. 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; instead, make sure that you're not doing anything to enable the gambler, and take part in the recovery process if desired or necessary. 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.
If you know a friend or family member who has a gambling problem, it can often be difficult to get them to see that there is a problem at all. There's no guaranteed way to convince a compulsive gambler to seek treatment, but it can often help to let that person know how their wagering has affected their life, and the lives of those around them.
One method that is often used to address problem gambling - as well as other forms of addiction and similar problems - is an intervention, in which family and/or close friends confront the compulsive gambler to show 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. Each person in the intervention should share a message or story that explains how the problem behavior has hurt them and their relationship with the gambler. At no point should the tone of these messages be confrontational or heated.
If you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, there are plenty of resources available to those looking for help. Treatment and help for gambling addiction is available in many different forms. There is not one type of treatment that works for every person and sometimes multiple methods may be required.
Available options range from group meetings with people in similar situations to advance therapy with professional counselors and doctors. Whether you need someone to talk with about your problem right now, or you need to find a more rigorous treatment program, you can find it here. The following are just a few of the organizations and other resources dedicated to fighting gambling addiction:
Gamblers Anonymous (http://www.gamblersanonymous.org/ga/) – Founded in 1957, Gamblers Anonymous has local groups that meet around the world. The only requirement for those looking to join is that they have a desire to stop gambling. GA includes a 12 step program to help recovering problem gamblers avoid relapsing into their old behaviors. There are also groups available for the loved ones (Gam-Anon) and the children of problem gamblers (Gam-A-Teen).
The National Council on Problem Gambling (http://www.ncpgambling.org) – The National Council on Problem Gambling advocates for problem gamblers and their families, and is completely independent of the gambling industry. Their website contains extensive information on problem gambling, treatment information, and counselors throughout the United States who are trained to deal with compulsive gambling problems.
National Problem Gambling Helpline Network (800-522-4700) – This hotline is run by the NCPG, and offers information on local resources available for problem gamblers and their loved ones.
GamCare (http://www.gamcare.org.uk/) – GamCare is an industry-funded charity that offers non-judgmental counseling and guidance for problem gamblers in the United Kingdom. GamCare also operates a Help Line in the UK that can be reached at 0808 8020 133.
Gambling Helplines by Country
Argentina - juegoresponsable.com.ar - 0800-333-0333
België - www.vad.be - 02 423 03 33
Brasil - www.elianaferrarez.com.br - 32 3236 1014
Canadien - www.problemgambling.ca - 1-888-230-3505
Chile - www.psicologosludopatiachile.cl - 9 222 3860
Deutschland - www.spielen-mit-verantwortung.de - 0800-1 37 27 00
España - fejar.org - 900 200 225
France - www.ifac-addictions.fr - + 33 (0)2 40 84 76 20
Italia - www.giocaresponsabile.it - 800 921 121
Nederland - www.agog.nl - 0900-2177721
Norge - hjelpelinjen.no - 800 800 40
Österreich - www.spielsuchthilfe.at - (1) 544 13 57
Português - www.jogoresponsavel.pt - 213 950 911
Schweiz - www.suchtschweiz.ch - 021 321 29 11
Sverige - www.spelberoende.se - 020-81 91 00
References And Sources:
- www.helpguide.org: Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling - Warning Signs and How to Get Help
- www.problemgambling.ca [PDF]: Problem Gambling: The Issues, the Options
- www.gla.ac.uk [PDF]: A review of research on aspects of problem gambling
- www.scientificamerican.com: How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling
- www.nlm.nih.gov: Pathological gambling
- www.cam.ac.uk: The psychology of gambling
- www.cnwl.nhs.uk: Treatment for gambling addiction
- gamblingaddiction.org.uk: Myths about gambling addiction
- www.bcresponsiblegambling.ca: Gambling Myths & Facts
You can learn more about the psychology behind gambling addiction by reading our interview with an addiction psychologist here.
Casino.org's editorial staff have over 25 years of experience in the gambling and casino industry. However, we promote responsible gambling & this article should not be used in lieu of seeking professional help and is here to serve as guidance. Should you, or a family member, suffer from a gambling addiction or problem behavior, we recommend contacting a counsellor or one of the organizations listed in our resources section.