Gambling is a leisure activity that may occur over a continuum, ranging from casual social gambling, with no harm caused, to pathological gambling, with serious harmful consequences for the individual gambling and their loved ones. Gambling becomes a problem when it is done excessively and negatively affects a person’s daily activities, school or work performance, mental health, physical health, interpersonal relationships, and finances.1 People who experience problems with gambling are found in all age groups, across all income groups and social strata, across all genders and race. For some, the challenges with gambling may occur suddenly whereas for others, over many years of use.
Serious social gambling: play is taking place regularly and is an important leisure activity in players’ lives, however, it does not come before work, loved ones, and social relationships.
Harmful involvement: these are players that are experiencing difficulties in their personal, work and social relationships as a result of their participation in gambling activities. Harmful involvement with gambling indicates problem gambling behaviours. These are players that often bet with money they cannot afford to lose, overspend on their credit cards, and borrow money in order to gamble.
Pathological gambling: where players are experiencing difficulties in controlling the urge to gamble despite the harms it causes. Individuals who engage in pathological gambling are also at increased risk of suicide.2 Examples of pathological gambling include:
- Needing to gamble with larger amounts of money or for longer periods of time in order to get the same feeling of excitement
- Gambling to escape personal problems or to relieve feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or loneliness
- Refusing to discuss gambling with others or lying to cover it up
- Gambling instead of attending family or other social functions
- Consistently or always planning holidays when gambling is available
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a gambling disorder is classified as a substance-related and addictive disorder, reflecting evidence that shows gambling behaviours activate reward systems in our brains similar to those activated by drugs. This means that the effects someone would get from gambling are similar to the effects they would get from drinking alcohol.3.
There are different forms of gambling, most of which can be engaged with both online and in person. These include casino games, lotteries, sports betting, and card games, among others. Problem gambling is not just about losing money. Gambling problems affect a person’s whole life. Almost everyone who develops a gambling problem believes it is “just a matter of time” until they hit the jackpot. In these cases, people may gamble to the point where it negatively affects their relationships, finances, and health.4 Despite experiencing negative consequences, they may deny that they have a problem, continue to chase money losses, and neglect work, loved ones, and their self-care.5 Gambling has been recognized as an important public health concern that has a significant impact on population health.
Below are some general signs of a potential gambling problem. Everyone’s experience is different and observing one or two of these does not mean they are struggling with gambling. Experiencing multiple symptoms simultaneously may suggest there are larger concerns and speaking with a mental health professional can help you better understand how to proceed.
- Neglecting family and work responsibilities
- Being secretive about one’s finances
- Symptoms of anxiety and/or depression
- Appearing irritable, restless or unable to concentrate
- Appearing disinterested in other social activities
- Increasing substance use
- Disappearing for long periods at a time
- Borrowing money, selling things, engaging in (or considering) criminal activities in order to get money for gambling
- Feeling a sense of emptiness or loss when not gambling
Strategies to engage with gambling responsibly:7
- Don’t think of gambling as a means to make money.
- All gambling establishments, online and land-based, are designed to take in more money than they payout, with the majority of people losing to create big wins for the minority. Most people who struggle with pathological gambling believe that they will be the big winners, which feeds the problem.
- If you choose to gamble for leisure, use money that has already been set aside for leisure activities and you can afford to lose.
- If you lose money while gambling, don’t chase it by going over your limit. This usually leads to bigger losses.
- Set a money limit in advance and once you have lost that amount, stop playing.
- Set a time limit in advance and stop once you have reached that limit.
- Don’t gamble when emotions and feelings are already heightened. It is especially difficult to make healthy decisions about gambling when you are feeling anxious, depressed, angry or upset.
- Balance gambling with other leisure activities.
- Engage in other activities that you find enjoyment, so that gambling does not become too big a part of your life.
- Do not gamble and consume substances at the same time.
- Gambling while under the influence is common, however, generally leads to decisions that you might regret later.
If you know someone struggling with gambling:
If you are concerned about a loved one’s gambling, it is natural to want to help. However, the person may refuse to talk about it or deny that there is anything to be concerned about. It is important to remember that you cannot stop the gambling, however, you can start the conversation, share your perspective, and take steps to protect yourself. If and when the individual chooses to seek support for their gambling behaviours, remember that the journey can be very difficult and they will experience several highs and lows. According to a study based in Australia, most people would prefer to live only five and a half years being free of gambling problems, rather than ten years with them. This makes an impact on the quality of life by the severity of gambling problems in line with the severity of alcohol use disorder, positioning gambling-related harm alongside that of alcohol-related harm.
Some people may return to gambling after having decided to stop (referred to as relapsing). This can happen for a variety of reasons and does not mean they will not achieve their goals. It may be more difficult at times, but not impossible. It is best to encourage them to work with a therapist who can help individuals learn how to cope with symptoms to continue to work toward their goals.
As the loved ones of someone struggling with gambling, it is important to protect yourself financially and care for yourself emotionally. Financially, it is advisable to speak with a professional as problems related to gambling can be complicated, so depending on your unique situation, you may benefit from consulting with a lawyer or debt management consultant to understand your legal rights and financial obligations.
Emotionally, you may be feeling overwhelmed, betrayed, drained, depressed and frightened for the future. Thoughts and feelings of this nature are common when first addressing the complex issues that arise as a result of gambling. Do not blame yourself for the problems that have been created or for not seeing the signs earlier. Take the time you need to sort through your feelings and remember that change is made in small steps through self-care. Some options for self-care include defining boundaries, visiting the doctor to take care of your physical health, joining a support group, and visiting a therapist.
COSTI Problem Gambling Services: http://www.costi.org/programs/gambling.php
Responsible Gambling Council: https://www.responsiblegambling.org/
1 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from https://www.responsiblegambling.org/safer-play
2 What is Gambling Disorder? (2018). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gambling-disorder/what-is-gambling-disorder
3 What is Gambling Disorder? (2018). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gambling-disorder/what-is-gambling-disorder
4 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from https://www.responsiblegambling.org/safer-play
5 When is Gambling a Problem? Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from https://www.responsiblegambling.org/safer-play/when-is-gambling-a-problem-
6 Browne, M., Rawat, V., Greer, N., Langham, E., Rockloff, M. & Hanley, C. (2017). What is the harm? Applying a public health methodology to measure the impact of gambling problems and harm on quality of life. Journal of Gambling Issues, 36(2). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4309/jgi.2017.36.2
7 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from https://www.responsiblegambling.org/safer-play
8 For Someone You Know Who Gambles. Responsible Gambling Council. https://www.responsiblegambling.org/get-help/for-someone-else-who-gambles
9 Browne, M., Rawat, V., Greer, N., Langham, E., Rockloff, M. & Hanley, C. (2017). What is the harm? Applying a public health methodology to measure the impact of gambling problems and harm on quality of life. Journal of Gambling Issues, 36(2). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4309/jgi.2017.36.2