Most people gamble for entertainment at some time or other. We might buy a scratch card, enter a football tipping competition, have a bet on the favourite horse or enter the weekly lottery draw. These are often fun activities that might not even involve cash. Gambling simply refers to an activity or game of chance where people offer something of value in order to gain more money or a prize based on the outcome of the activity.
Other commercial examples of gambling include online betting on sporting events, playing poker machines or throwing a dice at the casino. It has been estimated that Australians spend nearly $20 billion a year on gambling activities - around $12 billion of which was put through the coin slots of poker machines. In 2009, 70 % of Australians participated in some form of gambling.
For the most part, these one-off flutters have no long-lasting effects. However for some people, the desire to win becomes a compulsion to continue gambling for higher stakes. Although it may not always be initially apparent, there is often an underlying emotional reason why some people are more likely to develop this form of addiction. The urge for ‘just one more’ bet can be so strong that it can spiral out of control very quickly even when the person knows the odds are against them.
When this compulsion becomes the person’s main focus their behaviour may change and they have an increased risk of experiencing some form of negative consequences. They may go to great lengths to conceal their activities, lying about it or hiding it from friends and family often out of fear or shame that others will discover how much money they have burned through.
Sometimes problem gamblers even try to hide the problem from themselves by denying there is an issue. Slowly these behaviours can start to affect everyday life and create confusion and stress for the person and their family and friends.
Research suggests that up to 500,000 Australians are, or are at risk of becoming, problem gamblers. As the behaviour of just one person can have a negative impact on up to 10 other people then potentially up to 5 million people could be affected by problem gambling every year. Early intervention with professional support goes a long way to reducing the potential harm that gambling can inflict.
Compulsive gamblers often believe that they can disguise their habit but they often have behavioural changes that are increasingly apparent. These include:
Problem gamblers are often more likely to engage in their habit during working hours to hide it from family and friends. For this reason, co-workers are more likely to be first to notice the signs of a gambling addiction. They may observe that the person:
The impact of this type of behaviour is far-reaching and it is estimated that the social cost to the community is almost $5 billion a year.
Many people mistakenly believe that gambling can’t actually be addictive as it involves an activity rather than a substance.
While it is true that gambling does not induce a physical craving or have harmful physical side-effects, this ‘invisible’ psychological addiction still produces the same changes in the brain’s chemistry that occur when drugs are taken. Intense emotions, such as the euphoria of winning, trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is sometimes called a ‘happiness hormone as it generates feelings of power, satisfaction and alertness. It is this ‘natural high’ that gambling addicts mentally crave when striving for their next ‘fix’.
There is also a mistaken belief that people have to gamble every day or suffer financially in order to be considered a gambling addict. However this would mean that people who gamble irregularly or who can afford to lose the money they gamble would not be considered addicts. In reality what defines these people as addicts is their drive or compulsion to prioritise their gambling over other daily activities and relationships regardless of how often they gamble.
Sometimes a compulsive gambler may be aware of their addiction and the problem it creates; however others may not notice the gradual signs and changes until a crisis forces them to confront the issue head on. It could be that their secret is discovered or that they become completely broke.
While the activity may initially be a fun and enticing form of escape from everyday stress, it may soon become one that creates further stress, anxiety or depression. It may also lead to other forms of addiction such as substance or alcohol abuse. Research has shown that a problem gambler is up to four times more likely to develop an alcoholic addiction than someone who does not have a gambling issue.
The first step in stopping the progression of a gambling addiction is for the person to acknowledge they have a problem. If you are concerned about your gambling, consider if any of the following signs are relevant to you.
If you can identify with any of these signs then you should consider asking for help. Starting with your family and friends may be less confronting for you and their insights may help you see the true impact of your addiction. This might be the wake-up call you need to propel you into further action.
There is always a strong chance you can turn your life back around regardless of how far your addiction has progressed. It is not a sign of weakness to admit you are in a mess and to ask for help. In fact it takes courage and strength to pick yourself up and start to deal with all the issues you have been avoiding. Only around 15% of problem gamblers seek help, so you by reading this you have already taken your first step on the road to recovery. In your community there is a vast network of people who are willing to give you all the resources, professional support and encouragement you need to begin treatment and regain control of your life.
The most effective treatment for gambling addiction is counselling or talking therapy. Professional counsellors may use a variety of therapies tailored to suit the individual but the most common is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As the majority of problem gamblers will also be addicted to drugs or alcohol the therapist may include medication in the range of treatments. Often gambling addicts also have a mental health condition so their treatment plan may need to address a wide range of complex issues.
CBT is based on the premise that our thoughts drive our actions so a therapist will work closely with the person to try and identify the underlying thoughts, beliefs and emotions that triggered the addictive behaviour. Once the reason is established it can be addressed and replaced with a more constructive way to cope that does not involve gambling. This gives the person the necessary tools, resources and support to change their behaviour patterns and see hope in their future again.
In Australia there are currently no laws that specify what qualifications or training a counsellor needs to have before being allowed to offer addiction counselling services. However there are a number of tertiary and professional development courses that are available. Practitioners can also apply to be registered with the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) and other industry associations.
It is generally recommended that people struggling to overcome a substance addiction undertake a detox program alongside CBT or similar therapy. When that person is in a relationship or has a family then couples or family counselling may be also needed so finding a professional with experience with addiction in these circumstances would be very beneficial.