While millions of people engage in gambling activities with few or no apparent problems, this is not the case for everyone. Approximately three to four percent of the population report some gambling-related problems, while one to two percent report serious gambling-related problems. Furthermore, it is estimated that one problem gambler affects at least seven other people—spouses, children, extended family members, and friends. Problem gambling can hurt not only one’s finances, but one’s physical and mental health, as well as relationships.
When is Gambling a Problem?
Gambling is risking something of value on the outcome of an uncertain chance event. Gambling is not inherently evil or harmful. Many people find it an exciting way to socialize and relax. Gambling can take many forms, ranging from lottery tickets, bingo, horse betting, casino games, to slot machines and video lottery terminals. There is cause for concern if you or someone close to you show five or more of the following signs (according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual):
- Pre-occupation with gambling
Need to gamble with increasing amounts of money to maintain excitement
Repeated unsuccessful efforts to cut back or stop gambling
Restlessness or irritability when attempting to “cut back”
Gambling as a way to escape from problems or unpleasant feelings
After losing money, a gambler returns the next day in an attempt to win it back (“chasing” losses)
Lies or conceals truth about money and time spent on gambling to family members, significant others, and/or therapist
Has committed illegal acts such as forgery, embezzlement, fraud, or theft to finance gambling
Has lost or seen distress in a significant relationship, job, career opportunity, or education due to gambling
Relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling
What are the Risk Factors for Problem and Pathological Gambling?
With many gambling formats now legalized, the risks inherent in the activity are often overlooked. Relationship problems, social isolation, chronic or overwhelming stress, life transitions, recent crises and setbacks, helplessness and hopelessness due to poor coping skills, traumatic events past or present, environmental factors and possible genetic influences can all make a person vulnerable to problem gambling. Problem gamblers often use gambling as an escape from unpleasant feelings of helplessness, guilt, depression, and anxiety. In addition, some individuals falsely believe that their own control, skill or luck at gambling will help them win regularly. Early big wins may also set up unrealistic hopes for further wins. A person may focus more on the wins while minimizing losses and distort the reality of the situation.
How Does Problem Gambling Affect Individuals, Couples and Families?
More than a family’s financial health is at stake when gambling problems enter the picture. The disclosure or discovery of the extent of losses is often sudden and devastating. This in turn takes a toll on the emotional and physical health of both gambler and spouse. In desperation, some problem gamblers resort to crimes such as forgery, fraud, theft, and embezzlement. Adolescent children of those with gambling problems are at increased risk of depressive feelings, conduct problems and gambling problems. As well, dealing with the secrecy and shame of gambling problems can increase familial stress and isolate the gambler and family from outside support. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are often associated with serious gambling issues. Though difficult, speaking honestly and openly with a therapist knowledgeable about problem gambling can go a long way in turning things around.
What Kinds of Help are there for Problem Gamblers?
A professional trained in working with problem gambling and marriage and family therapy can help the gambler and spouse discuss the reality of their situation respectfully and in safety. Both partners are given the opportunity to express their individual feelings and perspectives. Referrals to a financial or debt counselor may be made to manage financial losses.
Treatment for gambling can range from brief, gambling behavior focused interventions to more in-depth work on underlying issues that contribute to gambling behaviors. These include:
- Workbooks to help stop problem gambling behaviors. Brief therapy can also help gauge the gambler’s readiness to change and help increase motivation by having the client weigh the costs and benefits of the activity.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help gamblers correct their misconceptions about their chances of winning or making money from gambling.
- Couple therapy to help a couple improve communication and mutual understanding, shedding light on how relationship distress, present and past, have contributed to gambling as a way of finding relief.
Family members are one of the most precious assets as one goes through life’s ups and downs. Enhancing coping and communication skills, self and other awareness, mending broken relationships, and learning to regulate one’s emotions can bring life back on track. A person may discover that when better personal and relationship resources are used to navigate life’s challenges, gambling as a problem falls away.
Where Can We Find Help?
A licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) with knowledge of problem gambling can be a very important resource to arrest problem gambling before it spins further out of control. Many individuals and couples have found the crisis of problem gambling to be an opportunity to look at issues they have neglected for a long time. Seizing this moment as an opening for growth and healing has brought hope and renewal to many who seek help.
By Bonnie K. Lee, PhD, and Michelle P. Browne.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Problem and Pathological Gambling" pamphlets to market your practice.
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