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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:

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.[6]

Risk factors

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.

Strategies to engage with gambling responsibly:7

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.[8] 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.[9]

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:

Responsible Gambling Council:


1 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from

2 What is Gambling Disorder? (2018). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from

3 What is Gambling Disorder? (2018). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from

4 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from

5 When is Gambling a Problem? Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from

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:

7 Safer Play. Responsible Gambling Council. Retrieved from

8 For Someone You Know Who Gambles. Responsible Gambling Council.

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:

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