Gambling can be a safe and enjoyable activity for those who make responsible wagers and approach it as a form of recreation. However, for others, the consistent need to bet irresponsible amounts in hopes of winning money can lead to, or be a symptom of, gambling addiction, a condition that negatively impacts people’s lives.
People facing gambling addiction are often identified by symptoms that include having a constant need to gamble, gambling with increasing amounts of money, or feeling anxious when they aren’t gambling. These individuals may hide the extent of their problems from family and friends and may even resort to illegal means to obtain more money for gambling. Even beyond the potential to win, some people with gambling addiction are motivated by the thrill they get from gambling, while others use it as a coping mechanism to escape from challenging emotions.
According to the National Council on Problem Gaming, 2 million adults in the U.S. meet severe gambling criteria in a given year. The council reports that another 4 to 6 million American adults have mild or moderate problems. The threat of gambling addiction doesn’t discriminate or target, which makes it a particularly troublesome issue, as gambling addiction can affect people of all ages, sexes and socioeconomic groups.
Gambling addiction resources, such as hotlines, are available for individuals who believe they may be at risk. These hotlines also support friends, families, colleagues and communities who are concerned about a loved one’s gambling problem. Hotlines and other resources can help individuals address and overcome their problems related to gambling and live healthy, fulfilling lives.
Why Is Gambling Addictive?
The addictive properties of gambling aren’t necessarily tied to dreams of hitting that big bet. According to the Responsible Gaming Council, when a person gambles, the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. This release produces feelings of excitement, and these feelings are produced whether that bet wins or loses.
In combination with other elements of gambling, such as the potential of winning, the enjoyment of playing and the social participation of the experience, dopamine triggers the brain’s reward system. In some people, this reward system may compel them to keep betting beyond their intended limits to experience those positive feelings. Over time, this can lead to problem gambling, which can alter the brain’s reward system and change a person’s overall behavior. This can make it very difficult for individuals to recognize when it’s time to walk away from the slots or the tables.
The ways that gambling addiction can manifest include playing games at casinos, spending money on digital gambling platforms like online poker or betting on sports. Additionally, there’s no set amount of money a person needs to lose to have a gambling problem.
It can be difficult for the friends or family of individuals with gambling addiction to know the extent to which it’s impacting their loved one’s life, as they may hide or lie about the damage their addiction is inflicting and may not show external signs of having a problem. However, gambling addiction can lead to negative financial and health outcomes, including suicide. According to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, nearly half of people in treatment for a gambling issue have suicidal thoughts, and 17% of those have attempted suicide.
Gambling Addiction Statistics
Gambling disorder, sometimes referred to as compulsive gambling, is the lone behavioral addiction found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychological Association (APA). According to the APA, gambling disorder “involves repeated, problem gambling behavior. The behavior leads to problems for the individual, families, and society. Adults and adolescents with gambling disorders have trouble controlling their gambling. They will continue even when it causes significant problems.”
By that definition, gambling addiction can be found in other environments besides casinos, racetracks and similar betting environments. The addiction can reveal itself anyplace a person is willing to lose something valuable, like a car or a house, in hopes of gaining something else. Before looking at how gambling addiction hotlines and other resources help individuals with gambling problems, it’s important to understand the effects and toll that gambling addiction can have on a person’s life.
Financial Impact of Gambling Addiction
Credit card debt. Ninety percent of individuals suffering from gambling addiction withdraw cash advances from their credit cards to gamble, according to Debt.org. Heavy interest charges on credit cards lead to people paying much more over time than the amount they initially withdrew. Additionally, if these individuals can’t pay back their credit card bills, they face more financial consequences besides losing money through gambling, such as lower credit scores, denial of loans and mortgages, or bankruptcy.
Sports betting risks. Sports betting alone produced $1.5 billion in revenue in 2020, according to NBC News. The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to lift the federal ban on sports gambling opened a lucrative avenue for gambling. It also created another means for people suffering from gambling addiction to allow gambling disorder to take hold — a situation the National Council on Problem Gambling considers to be a “ticking time bomb.”
Heavy debt. Up to 23 million Americans land in debt due to gambling, according to Debt.org. The average loss that sends people into debt is calculated to be around $55,000.
Lottery betting risks. A small percentage of residents make up the majority of lottery players, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. A study on Minnesota’s lottery determined that 71% of its lottery income comes from 20% of its players. A similar study on Pennsylvania’s lottery revealed that 79% of the lottery income comes from 29% of its players. Additionally, while further studies indicate that 77% of lottery players have an income of $25,000 or more, this means that 23% — more than 1 in 5 players — are below that income level.
Mental and Emotional Health Effects of Gambling Addiction
Compulsive gambling can be associated with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to Sparrow. While gambling addiction isn’t necessarily a cause of these conditions, it can exacerbate the symptoms and effects of these illnesses.
Gambling disorder can trigger a host of emotional and physical symptoms and cause life-altering incidents to occur, according to PsychGuides. Individuals dealing with gambling disorder may also develop anxiety and depression, which in turn may cause issues such as sleep deprivation and weight loss. Over time, the disorder may disrupt their relationships and compel them to turn to alcohol or drugs as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Individuals are deemed to have gambling disorder if they meet four or more of the nine symptoms outlined by the DSM-5, according to Verywell Mind. These symptoms can include needing to gamble with more money to get the same rush from gambling as previously; making multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop gambing; lying to cover up gambling frequency; gambling when feeling depressed, guilty or anxious; and chasing losses.
Challenges Facing Those With Gambling Addiction
Studies indicate that up to 34% of people with gambling disorder also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to Verywell Mind. These individuals were also more likely to experience issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Several peripheral factors may influence a change in their behavior that could lead to gambling addiction, even if they’re dependable and responsible individuals, per the Mental Health Foundation. These factors can include peer pressure; personality traits, such as being competitive or easily bored; or being introduced to gambling at a young age. In rare cases, certain medications may cause a side effect that could spur compulsive behaviors, such as gambling.
A stigma surrounds gambling disorder, prompting some people to hide their condition, according to Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
One of the key reasons behind the stigma is the stereotypical perception of those dealing with gambling disorder as being impulsive, irrational, irresponsible and aggressive. The desire to hide their conditions may lead to a lower number of people with gambling disorder to seek help.
Gambling Addiction Hotlines and Help Resources
Gambling addiction and its effects can negatively impact an individual’s life — financially, emotionally, mentally and physically. However, resources are available to those struggling with this condition.
Gambling Addiction Hotline and Digital Resources
The National Problem Gambling Helpline at 800-522-4700 is available 24/7 and is fully confidential. This gambling hotline connects callers to local health and government organizations that can assist with their gambling addiction. The hotline is offered by the National Council on Problem Gambling, which also offers text services at 800-522-4700, as well as chat services. The organization also offers a comprehensive list of resources that can help individuals with gambling addiction. The National Council on Problem Gambling offers specific resources for Nevada residents as well.
Those with gambling addiction may also battle substance abuse issues and be at risk of suicide. As such, they can call the National Drug Helpline at 844-289-0879 or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-8255. Gamblers Anonymous is an organization that helps individuals recover from gambling problems. It provides a list of U.S. hotlines available by state, FAQs regarding problem gambling and a 20-question quiz to help individuals determine if they may have a gambling addiction.
Community and Support Groups
In addition to providing resources that can help people discover if they’re addicted to gambling, Gamblers Anonymous holds meetings at various locations across the U.S. to assist individuals who have gambling addiction or believe they may have one. The organization also conducts meetings in several international locations. Depending on which state a gambling addict resides in, there may be additional resources and services available from Gamblers Anonymous as well.
Tips for Helping and Communicating With People With Gambling Addiction
The Better Health Channel, available from the government of Victoria, Australia, provides a list of resources that individuals can use when communicating with and helping a person with gambling addiction. The Better Health Channel recommends that people recognize that they aren’t at fault for another person’s gambling addiction, practice financial discipline and engage in honest communication.
GamCare offers support and treatment tools, such as hotlines and live chats, to individuals who’ve been affected by someone else’s gambling addiction. Additionally, Gamblers Addiction hosts open meetings in which spouses, family and other people close to someone with a gambling addiction can attend.