Gambling Addiction and Treatment
It's never too late to get help for your gambling addiction. Take the first step today.
Caring professionals are waiting to help you. They understand what you're going through and can help you overcome the difficulties associated with addiction. Begin working with them right away to start healing yourself, repairing your most important relationships, and recovering your finances. That way, you can start to experience the feelings of freedom, independence, and confidence that come from knowing you can get your life back.
By understanding the facts about gambling addiction and getting compassionate treatment, you can begin letting go of your impulses. With each new day of care and effort, it may get easier to live your life without the addiction overshadowing you. It's entirely possible to achieve that goal. You hold the power within you to accomplish it.
"Gambling means that you're willing to risk something you value in the hope of getting something of even greater value" (Mayo Clinic, 2014) through activities that involve an element of chance or "luck" (Nower & Blaszczynski, 2008). It is estimated that the U.S. gambling industry generates more than $79 billion a year from such activities (Statista, 2018). Most gamblers appear to be "entertainment" users of the gambling industry (like those who enjoy occasional casino gambling). For them, gambling, or gaming, is not problematic. It is likely, however, that many gambling addicts go unknown and uncounted. Addicts of all types tend to hide the warning signs and keep their problems secret for as long as they can.
Symptoms of Gambling Disorder
A gambling problem is commonly referred to by several terms. These include gambling addiction, compulsive gambling, excessive gambling, problem gambling and pathological gambling. The medical profession has officially recognized gambling problems and now uses the term Gambling Disorder to indicate a mental health and behavioral problem caused by gambling. Gambling addiction signs and symptoms include a persistent and recurring problem in which gambling leads to impairment or distress. This is evidenced by a person having at least four of the following symptoms over a 12-month period:
- Has a need to spend increased amounts of money over time in order to feel the desired excitement
- Becomes restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
- Has unsuccessfully and repeatedly tried to cut down or stop
- Is preoccupied with gambling—about it, plans, or prepares for it
- Gambles when feeling distressed
- Tries to recoup losses by gambling more
- Lies to keep gambling activity secret
- Has relationship, occupational, financial, or academic problems because of gambling
- Relies on others for financial help for gambling and related problems (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
The Extent of the Problem
It is estimated that about five million Americans have had a Gambling Disorder in their lifetime. It is also estimated that two to four times that many currently have significant problems that are not the full blown disorder but that may become severe over time (SAMHSA Advisory, 2014).
Years ago, many people did not have easy access to gambling activities, but that has changed dramatically. Now, there is access to legalized gambling on the Internet, at off-track betting sites, at racetracks and casinos, in bingo halls, and even in vending machines, supermarkets, convenience markets, and gas stations. Adults, teens, and sometimes children now have access to gambling opportunities.
No group of people is immune to developing a gambling addiction.
Who Becomes a Gambling Addict?
The causes of gambling addiction are quite varied, and issues in gambling are similar to those in substance use. For example, consider the use of alcohol—only some who drink become alcoholic. However, for those who do become addicted to gambling, alcohol, drugs, or other activities, the consequences can be devastating. No longer gambling for entertainment, the addict has a desperate struggle to manage a life that is spiraling out of control. The addicted gambler, like other addicts, stands out in the crowd. When it comes to gambling, the addict's behavior, mood, and mental preoccupation are more intense than those of entertainment gamblers.
Why is gambling addictive? And how does a gambling addiction develop for one person and not another? The answers cut across all walks of life. No group of people is immune to developing a gambling addiction. Race, money, gender, education, or occupation doesn't matter; the problems are the same, but in different "flavors." For example, one addict may lose $10,000 at a casino dice table, be able to cover his bets, and do no immediate financial harm to his family. This does not mean that he isn't struggling and that his family isn't suffering from his addiction. The consequences are not simply monetary.
In contrast, another addict may struggle for living expenses after buying $50 of scratch-off's, binging at the convenience store. The immediate consequences are different for this addict. Food will be short this week perhaps, but these two gamblers have a great deal in common, and it does not matter how much money they have, where they live, or how they support themselves. Because of individual differences, every addict will have a unique story, but the common ground between them will be the thoughts and feelings, the coping strategies, and the personality traits of an addict.
There are some groups of people that seem to be more likely to develop a gambling addiction. These include people who find gambling to be intensely exhilarating because of the "action." The action gamblers—the majority of whom are men—seek the thrill of gambling when it involves (or seems to involve) some skill. There is often a great deal of excitement, focus, emotional intensity, and physical agitation for many of these players that can resemble the "high" of stimulating drugs. Action gamblers appear "under the influence" of their gambling activities with noticeable changes in their moods and how they behave. These gamblers would be likely to engage in such activities as handicapping horse races or playing poker. Even if such gamblers have on their "poker faces," internally they feel the "rush" of excitement.
A high percentage of gambling addicts tend to have mental health disorders such as depression, poor impulse control, personality problems, attention deficit, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance problems.
Others at risk for addiction are those who use gambling as a means of escaping from life's stress. These "escape gamblers" typically engage in such gaming as the lottery, scratch-offs, bingo, and slot machines. These are more passive and low-energy activities than the action gamblers prefer, but the relief that gambling provides to an escape gambler can be compared to drug use, too. Many escape gamblers feel comforted and soothed by their activities just as a more sedating substance would ease feelings of tension and anxiety. The majority of escape gamblers are women (SAMHSA Advisory, 2014).
Other factors that increase the chances of becoming addicted to gambling are mental health problems—particularly problems in managing emotions, impulses, anxiety, and life stress. A high percentage of gambling addicts tend to have mental health disorders such as depression, poor impulse control, personality problems, attention deficit, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance problems (D.Hodgins & Grant, 2011; SAMHSA Advisory, 2014).
Being exposed to gambling, and having easy access to it, also increase the chances of becoming addicted (Volberg, 1994). For example, gamblers who live within 50 miles of a casino are at risk of becoming addicted—more so than those who are not so close to such establishments (Harvard Medical School, 2014). Below is a list of other factors that put gamblers at risk for a Gambling Disorder:
- Frequent gambling sessions
- Quickly reinvested winnings
- Easy access to money
- Lack of education about gambling
- Low cash outlays needed to gamble
- Access to technology that supports gambling (Guan, 2007)
The Consequences of a Gambling Addiction
Negative consequences of gambling touch all areas of an addict's life. There are negative effects upon one's physical health, mental health, finances, relationships, social life, and occupational and academic functioning. Some addicts resort to illegal means to support their activities, and this, too, cuts across all groups of people. For example, "white collar" addicts who have access to corporate funds may embezzle or commit fraud to support their gambling activities.
Here are some gambling addiction statistics that give an overall picture of the issues many addicts face:
"Adult problem gamblers are five times more likely to have co-occurring alcohol dependence, four times more likely to abuse drugs, three times more likely to be depressed, eight times more likely to have bipolar disorder, three times more likely to experience an anxiety disorder and have significantly elevated rates of tachycardia, angina, cirrhosis." (Whyte, 2011)
The Physical Health of a Gambling Addict
A gambling addiction is fraught with high levels of stress. It is not unusual for an addict to develop hypertension and other conditions related to prolonged stress, such as ulcers and heart disease. There are also other health-endangering factors that addicts are at risk for, such as sleep deprivation, smoking, binge eating and substance use—particularly alcohol (Fong, 2005).
Areas where large numbers of gambling addicts gather have high suicide rates.
Mental Health Risks in Gambling Addiction
Mental health issues are common for gambling addicts. Anxiety is often a factor in the beginning of a gambling addiction and also grows as the addiction continues. As a gambling addiction progresses, and the consequences become overwhelming, addicts commonly develop symptoms such as hopelessness, guilt, shame, and desperation (Rosenthal & Rugle, 1994)—all of which are characteristics of depression. In fact, depression resulting in suicide is a risk for many, especially after large losses. It is estimated that about two-thirds of the members of Gambling Anonymous (a self-help group for gambling addicts) has been suicidal before. Areas where large numbers of gambling addicts gather have high suicide rates. "Repeatedly, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have been shown to have the highest suicide rates in the nation" (Gerstein, 1999). Other information further shows the impact of severe depression for gambling addicts:
- Gambling addicts have a suicide rate that is 20 times higher than non-gamblers.
- One in five gambling addicts attempts suicide.
- The suicide rate for gambling addicts is higher than that of any other addiction. (Jantz, 2011)
Relationships and the Gambling Addict
The toll of a gambling addiction is shared with the family and loved ones of the addict. Financial difficulty and even financial disaster are not only risks, but are also reality for many. Naturally, the well-being of spouses and children are negatively impacted by an addict's activities. The compulsion to continue to gamble despite losses overrules obligations and responsibilities to loved ones.
Many spouses find themselves in overwhelmingly dire financial straits as the addict continues to gamble. Families lose a sense of security on many levels. For example, they lose money gambling that was supposed to be used for their household expenses, retirement, and college funds, and they lose property and savings.
Gambling addicts have higher rates of family disruption due to arrests, incarceration, and divorce than do non-gamblers and gamblers who are not addicted. They also have higher rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, and use of welfare benefits—all of which indicate the struggles family members have as well (Whyte, Internet Gaming , 2014).
Also, the emotional toll on family members can be devastating to them. Their daily experiences are often filled with insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, grief, and worry. Like the addict, depression can also be severe for family members. For example, approximately 11 percent of the wives of gambling addicts attempt suicide (Jantz, 2011).
What If a Loved One Is Addicted to Gambling?
Friends and family members need to determine what limits and boundaries should be set to care for themselves and other family members. This should involve increasing self-care and preventing the addict's gambling behavior from interfering with their lives as much as possible. Seeking support and counseling to deal with the impact of another's gambling addiction is helpful. There are many professionals that are trained in gambling addiction treatment who also work with family members. There are also 12 Step groups for loved ones. Gam-Anon is a free, self-help group for the loved ones of gambling addicts. Many areas, particularly with gambling venues, now have such groups. If not, many loved ones also find support and help from Alanon or Codependents Anonymous. All of these programs are based upon the same principles.
Do not engage in blaming, shaming, arguing, or bringing up the past.
What Not to Do
As in all addictions, there are ways in which friends and family members can enable the addict to continue on in the addiction. Here are some of the things typically recommended for loved ones not to do for the addict:
- Do not loan the addict any amount of money-even a few dollars.
- Do not take up financial slack by filling up his or her car with gas, buying needed items, paying his or her bills, etc.
- Do not help pay off gambling debts, legal fees related to gambling, etc.
- Do not hide the problem or make excuses.
- Do not deal with the gambler's creditors.
- Do not use personal allowances or household expenses to pay off the gambler's debt.
- Do not engage in blaming, shaming, arguing, or bringing up the past—it is upsetting to you and does not cause an addict to get help.
What to Do If a Loved One Is a Gambling Addict
There are many things a loved one can do to support an addict's recovery; however, spouses or partners, in particular, need to protect themselves and secure their own financial situations. Each state will have specific laws that govern joint finance and property. Some of the ways this can be done are:
- Consult with an attorney.
- Research state laws that govern joint assets and property.
- Take charge of the household's money.
- Cancel all joint accounts.
- Inform banks and credit card companies of the addiction.
- Change the household's mailing address to a trusted friend's or family member's, or get a P.O. box so that the addict has no access to finance-related mail.
- Research and use companies that monitor any credit activity in your name and that inform you of the addict's attempts to make loans or open credit cards.
- Do not use the home computer for any financial dealings.
- Change pin numbers and computer passwords.
- Shred documents that have finance-related information that the addict may use.
- Secure personal valuables out of the addict's access.
- Save money in a secret account.
- Open a checking account and credit card that the addict does not know about, and secure all related materials from him or her.
- Do not keep large amounts of cash at home or in the car.
- Make an emergency plan for meeting the family's needs for shelter and other necessities if the addict escalates.
How to Support a Loved One's Treatment
Gambling addicts need treatment. Here are some ways that you can encourage and support them as they figure out how to stop gambling:
- Research gambling addiction treatment centers, programs, and providers in your area.
- Consult with treatment providers about the best course of action.
- Learn as much as you can about gambling addiction. Check out the information and resources offered by the National Council on Problem Gambling.
- Talk openly, calmly, and honestly to the addict, offering support and information about treatment.
- Suggest going to treatment now.
- Help the addict get to help whenever he or she is willing.
- Call 911 if your loved one threatens suicide or take him or her to an emergency room right away. If he or she is not cooperative, you can file for an emergency protective order. If approved, law enforcement will take the addict to a hospital for safety and evaluation. Find out about these procedures before you may need them. Remember: gambling addicts are at high risk for suicide. Take it seriously.
- Participate in treatment programs when it is recommended.
- Discuss your own feelings in private therapy sessions just for you.
- Join a support group for loved ones of addicts.
- Focus on your own life and needs if the addict will not go to treatment or has a relapse after treatment.
Don't give up.
If You Are the Addict
If you are the gambling addict, these are suggestions for what you can do:
- Enter rehab immediately. After rehab, keep regular appointments with treatment providers; always report your gambling activity honestly, and follow their recommendations.
- Report any troublesome symptoms to your care providers such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, or thoughts of self-harm.
- Be direct and detailed about any suicidal feelings to counselors, therapists, or doctors. If the feelings are immediate and strong, or involve a plan to harm yourself, go to the emergency room of a hospital or call 911.
- Remind yourself that countless others have recovered and you can, too.
- Inform friends and family that you are seeking recovery and need their support. Ask them to not enable you, and explain what you mean.
- Attend gambling addiction help groups, get a sponsor there, and follow his or her suggestions.
- Avoid settings in which you will be tempted to gamble.
- Allow someone else to manage your money.
- Don't give up.
- Remember that recovery happens and there is hope.
Get the Help You Need for Your Gambling Addiction
You have the power within you to take back control. Get on the path to recovery by obtaining professional treatment, joining self-help groups, and taking part in other therapeutic programs. Positive change is in your future.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Fong, T. (2005). The Biopsychosocial Consequencs of Pathological Gambling. Psychiatry 2: 3, 22-30.
Gerstein, D. R. (1999). Gambling Impact and Behavior Study: Report to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Chicago, IL: National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Guan, A. Y. (2007). Common Components in the Treatment of Pathological Gamblers. Retrieved 2014, October 14 from PowerShow.com.
Jantz, G. (2011). Turning the Tables on Gambling: Hope and Help for Addictive Behavior. NY, NY: Doubleday Religious Publishing Group.
Mayo Clinic. (2014, February 12). Compulsive Gambling. Retrieved 2014, October 14 from Diseases and Conditions.
Nower, L., & Blaszczynski, A. (2008). Recovery in pathological gambling: An imprecise concept. Substance Use and Misuse, (12-13), 1844-1864.
Rosenthal, R., & Rugle, L. (1994). A psychodynamic approach to the treatment of pathological gambling: Part 1—Achieving abstinence. J Gambling Studies10, 21–42.
SAMHSA Advisory. (2014). Gambling Problems: An Introduction for Behavioral Health Services Providers. Washington, DC: SAMHSA.
Statista. (2018). Total revenue of the gambling market in the United States from 2004 to 2018. Retrieved 2020, April 13 from Statista.
Whyte, K. (2011, October 25). Internet Gaming: Is There a Safe Bet? Statement to United States House of Representatives: Energy & Commerce; Commerce, Manufacturing & Trade Subcommitte. Retrieved October 15, 2014.
Whyte, K. (2014, May 1). Internet Gaming. Statement to Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee. Retrieved October 14, 2014.