Gambling: The Worst Kind of Addiction

Gambling: The Worst Kind of Addiction

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This post was originally published on January 2, 2015.

When it comes to addiction, it’s fairly simply to grasp how drugs or alcohol hold a person’s mind and body captive. But for behaviors like gambling, science is just starting to explain an often misunderstood addiction. Just how does the average person get sucked into blowing their savings or embezzling from their workplace for one more shot at Texas Hold-em? And why can’t they stop?

Susan Edgar, psychologist and deputy director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, reports that gambling addiction in recent years is often triggered by significant loss. Unemployment or the death of a family member might nudge someone to try and turn around their luck with money. Edgar says that older women can be especially vulnerable when they walk into the warm and respectful atmosphere of a casino.

While there’s plenty of debate about how lotteries and casinos can provide funding for state budgets, gambling addiction should be treated as much more than simply a moral issue, says Marc Richman, assistant director of Community Mental Health and Addiction Services for the state of Delaware. The problem also tends to run in the family, with close relatives of pathological gamblers being eight times more likely to develop the addiction.

Compulsive gambling is arguably the sneakiest of all addictions. While drug use and drinking leave physical marks, the extent of a gambling habit can often not be evident until the person has descended far into hellish debt. It doesn’t help that Hollywood portrays high stakes gambling as nothing but glamorous. The Gambler, a recently released remake of the 1974 movie, has been criticized for avoiding the reality that huge winnings often lead to hitting rock bottom.

What Counts as Compulsive Gambling? 

Here’s how you distinguish a gambling addiction from an unfortunate night at the craps table: an addicted gambler clings to the idea that they the next big win could airlift them from the giant hole they’ve dug. This is an addiction symptom known as “chasing.” And to break even or go back in the black, an addict might start stealing money or asking family members for a loan. Dr. Timothy Fong, director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, estimates that about 25 percent of compulsive gamblers have committed a crime to perpetuate the addiction.

Treating the Gambling Addict

Many states like Delaware, where gambling contributes millions of dollars to the state budget, have decided to step up and offer free counseling to people with gambling addictions. CBT has been proven effective for many people, and while of course there’s no miracle drug for gambling addiction, people have found that antidepressants or anxiety medication can help.

Group therapy can play a powerful role in recovery. While the 12-step programs for alcohol and drug addiction are well established with plenty of advocates all but shouting about their success with them from the rooftops, GA doesn’t tend to attract every person who’s lost a couple days (or weeks or months) to blackjack. For this reason, states like New Jersey have launched a “Text for Help” program, where gamblers and their loved ones can receive support and information via text 24 hours a day. It may not be sexy—you’re not likely to find it involved in a scene in the latest Mark Wahlberg movie—but given the fact that one in five problem gamblers attempts suicide, it may be better to avoid the multiplex and pick up the phone.

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Dr. Kathleen Smith is an author and licensed professional counselor. A graduate of George Washington University and Harvard University, she also works as a mental health journalist. She’s written for Salon, Slate, New York Magazine, Lifehacker, Bustle, HelloGiggles and Thought Catalog. Kathleen is also a frequent contributor to professional publications such as GradPsych, Monitor on Psychology, Psychotherapy Networker, Family Therapy, and Counseling Today. Her book, The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, was published by Penguin Random House 2016.