Gambling involves risking something of value, usually money, on an event with an element of chance. This can be done through betting on events or games such as horse races, slot machines, bingo, scratch cards, dice, sports and even virtual games. It is a behavior that requires skill and judgement and has the potential to cause significant harm. Those who gamble may become dependent and experience difficulties with impulse control, financial problems, and mental illness.
In 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was updated, and pathological gambling was recognised as an addiction similar to substance abuse. A number of organisations offer support, assistance and counselling for people who have gambling problems. Some of these also provide support for their families.
Research has shown that many gamblers experience a series of negative consequences such as financial problems and relationship difficulties, as well as emotional distress and feelings of guilt and shame. People who are heavily involved in gambling often lie to their family and friends about how much they gamble or hide evidence of it. They may also have difficulty separating their gambling from their work or other activities. They are often highly motivated to make money, and have a strong desire for excitement and novelty. This can lead them to take risks that are out of their normal range and to seek out high-stakes gambles.
It is believed that some people who are addicted to gambling may have genetic or psychological predispositions that affect how they process rewards and impulse control. This can also be affected by environmental factors such as a family history of problem gambling or growing up in a culture that values gambling.
Some researchers have argued that the term ‘problem gambling’ is misleading and should be replaced by the more accurate ‘disordered gambling’. This reflects the fact that there is a continuum between behaviours that are only mildly problematic, through to those which meet the criteria for pathological gambling. This includes a range of symptoms such as tolerance, withdrawal and preoccupation with gambling. It also includes a number of risk-taking behaviors that are not always associated with gambling, such as drug use and depression.
In order to prevent a gambling problem, it is important to address any other underlying mood disorders, such as depression or stress. These disorders can both trigger and worsen gambling problems, and they are also likely to make it harder for people to give up their addiction.
If you are concerned that someone close to you is suffering from a gambling problem, seek help and advice. You can call a gambling helpline, contact a counsellor or attend a peer support group such as Gamblers Anonymous. If you are worried about your partner’s finances, consider taking over their money management responsibilities and setting boundaries to help them stay on track. You could also encourage them to engage in physical activity, or join a self-help group for families such as Gam-Anon.