In the United States, more than 7 million adults struggle with problem gambling. Since gambling disorders are often misunderstood, the National Council on Problem Gambling proclaimed every March to be Problem Gambling Awareness Month. The goal is to increase public awareness and shed light on treatment options and prevention.
One common misconception is problem gambling is just a bad habit or a sign of poor self-control, however, it’s a serious condition that can turn into an addiction and destroy lives. Gambling disorder is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA’s) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and is defined as repeated problematic gambling behavior that causes significant problems or distress.
Although a person might be a frequent gambler, it doesn’t mean they have a disorder. In order to receive a diagnosis of gambling disorder, a person must exhibit at least four of the criteria below within the last year.
- Need to gamble with increasing amount of money to achieve the desired excitement
- Restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
- Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back on or stop gambling
- Frequent thoughts 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
- After losing money gambling, often returning to get even (referred to as “chasing” one’s losses)
- Lying to conceal gambling activity
- 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
Source: American Psychiatric Association
Gambling & Co-Occurring Disorders
Although gambling doesn’t involve ingesting a substance, it produces similar effects on the brain as drugs or alcohol. Research shows that a person with one addiction is at an increased risk for developing another; many people with a gambling disorder also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. According to a 2005 study, 73% of pathological gamblers also have an alcohol use disorder and 38% misused drugs. This isn’t surprising since alcohol is handed out at casinos across the country. Just like a person addicted to drugs or alcohol develops a tolerance over time, so does a person with problem gambling. They need to bet more money and gamble more often to get the same emotional effect. As tolerance builds, a person develops an addiction.
Since it isn’t uncommon to develop more than one addiction, it is advised that people in recovery for substance use disorders also avoid gambling. When the reward centers of the brain are triggered by gambling, it could cause the person to crave drugs or alcohol, which could result in a relapse.
In addition to co-occurring substance use disorders, as many as 96% of people with a gambling disorder also have at least one psychiatric disorder. Studies have found 60% of problem gamblers have personality disorders, more than 50% have mood disorders, and more than 40% have anxiety disorders.
Treatment is available for problem gambling, but according to the APA, only 10% of receive treatment. Approaches to treatment vary based on individual needs, but often consist of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Co-occurring substance use disorders or psychiatric disorders will also be addressed.
The National Council on Problem Gambling offers a variety of ways to get help including:
- National Problem Gambling Helpline Network
- Call or send a text to 1-800-522-4700. Help is available 24/7 and is 100% confidential.
- Online chat
- Online peer support forum