Gambling As an Addiction

Gambling involves risking money or something of value on an event that is random and uncertain, such as a football match or a scratchcard. It’s an activity that has been popular for centuries despite being outlawed in many places. Many people who take part in gambling find it enjoyable and harmless but it can be very harmful for some. It can damage their health, relationships and work performance. It can also get them into debt and even lead to homelessness. For people who struggle with gambling, counselling can help. This could include talking with a therapist or attending a support group for families, such as Gam-Anon.

Psychiatrists have long been concerned about the role of gambling in mental illness but it wasn’t until recently that they recognised problem gambling as an actual addiction. In May 2015, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially added pathological gambling to its list of impulse-control disorders alongside other conditions such as kleptomania and pyromania. The move reflects research that suggests gambling disorder is similar to other addictions in terms of clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity and treatment.

Although many people who gamble do not experience problems, the APA’s decision recognises that there is a significant and important group of people who need specialist treatment. The new category of ‘gambling disorder’ will allow them to receive the help they need, rather than being ignored and stigmatised.

It’s not yet possible to prescribe a medication for gambling disorder but there is evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be helpful. This is a type of talking therapy that can look at the way someone thinks about betting and how they feel when they want to gamble. It can challenge beliefs that they are more likely to win than they really are or that certain rituals will bring luck, and can teach them more effective ways of coping with urges.

The harms that can be caused by gambling are varied and broad, affecting the person who gambles, their family and friends and the broader community. The early data from the HARM studies generated six different thematic classifications of harm that might occur: financial harms; harm to people’s mental and physical health; those harms that affect relationships; those that impact on work, study or economic activity; impacts on culture; and criminal acts. Additional analysis of the data relating to religious groups, CALD communities and indigenous populations has now identified a seventh.

It’s important to try to minimise any harm that can be caused by gambling, and the best way to do this is to make sure you only gamble with what you can afford to lose. It’s a good idea to set money and time limits for yourself and to stop when you hit them. Don’t try to recoup losses by gambling more; this will usually just cause more harm. Postponing gambling can be a helpful strategy too, as it allows you to focus on other things that will give you enjoyment in life and reduce the temptation to gamble. It’s also helpful to strengthen your support network and try to find other ways to spend your spare time, such as joining a book club or sports team, taking up a hobby or volunteering for a charity.