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Problem Gambling


Problem Gambling: A Chronic Condition that Needs to be Treated

Problem gambling is a chronic disorder. Its primary characteristic is an inability to control the urge to gamble, no matter how serious the consequences are. The amount of time you spend gambling doesn't necessarily determine whether you're a problem gambler, nor does the amount of money you spend. Your gambling is considered a problem if it has a negative impact on your family, your finances, your work and your own well-being.

Gambling can be loosely divided into two categories: action and escape. In action gambling, the player gambles in a group and may derive a sense of power by being thought of as a sort of "big shot" or "high roller" when winning. An escape gambler usually gambles alone, with machines.

Any type of gambling can become addictive, but video poker and slot machines have been referred to as the "crack cocaine of gambling." They seem to be more likely to cause gambling to become a problem more quickly.

About 2 million adults meet the criteria for compulsive gambling in any given year. It's important to realize that the vast majority of people who gamble are able to do so responsibly.

Problem gambling is an addiction

It might seem hard to think of gambling as something you can be addicted to, because there's not an actual substance involved, the way there is with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. But gambling can affect your mood the same way some substances can. People who become problem gamblers continue to engage in gambling because they constantly want to recapture that high, euphoric mood. As the gambling continues, it becomes harder and harder to recapture the mood, and the craving for it becomes stronger.

The difference between an addiction to gambling and an addiction to a substance is that gambling is easier to hide. When you're addicted to gambling, you don't stumble, slur your speech, smell of alcohol or have any of the other obvious physical symptoms of addiction. Many people don't recognize that gambling can be an addiction, so the condition tends to be under-treated.

Signs that a person may be a problem gambler

You may be able to tell that someone has a gambling problem if you notice:

  • Frequent trips to a bank machine to get cash
  • Very long periods of time spent on gambling
  • Saying they'll stop gambling after a certain time period or after spending a certain amount of money, and not sticking with that statement
  • Acting irritable, restless or perhaps in a trance-like state
  • Being late for work and for other appointments and meetings
  • Using vacation time to gamble
  • Taking long lunch hours to gamble
  • Borrowing money from co-workers

Gamblers Anonymous, on its Web site, has 20 questions you can ask yourself to determine what the likelihood is that you could be a problem gambler. Some of the questions include, "Do you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?" "Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?" "Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?"

To view the rest of the questions, visit Gamblers Anonymous.

The effects of problem gambling on families

It can be devastating to families when someone has a problem with gambling. The most obvious impact is financial. Families go into debt, lose homes, etc.

But there's a large emotional toll as well. Marriages become troubled, and often end. There's stress, tension and anger in the home. There's often a sense of shame and a need to keep the problems a secret from others, so the gambling problem can create a lot of isolation.

Children can be devastated when they have a parent who's a problem gambler. A gambling parent is often abusive—verbally, mentally or physically. Research shows that children who have a parent with a gambling problem attempt suicide twice as often as their peers. They generally perform poorly in school, and they're at increased risk of abusing tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs and of becoming problem gamblers themselves.

How is problem gambling treated?

One of the most common treatments for problem gambling is a 12-Step Gamblers Anonymous program. Gamblers Anonymous believes that "the compulsive gambler needs to be willing to accept the fact that he or she is in the grip of a progressive illness and has a desire to get well." Members attend meetings and draw support from one another.

It's also possible to get treatment from a counselor. This can be done in conjunction with taking part in a 12-Step program. The National Council on Problem Gambling has a 24-hour confidential helpline number— 1-800-522-4700. You can also visit the Web site to find an affiliate in your state

It's also possible to get medication for a gambling problem. A drug called nalmefene was tested last year on 200 compulsive gamblers. Results showed that 60 percent of the participants experienced reductions in their gambling behavior. Nalmefene works by blocking the brain's opiate reward system, which gambling triggers. More research is needed to determine how long nalmefene is likely to be effective for treatment of gambling.

But even if drug treatment is effective, most compulsive gamblers also need some kind of "talk therapy" to resolve their problem. That's why it's a good idea to take part in a 12-Step program or other counseling. You can also talk with your doctor for recommendations and advice.

California Council on Problem Gambling; Gamblers Anonymous; The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery; National Council on Problem Gambling;
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