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With the Big Game upon us next Sunday, America is in the throes of one of the biggest gambling binges of the year. How can you tell when gambling goes from “a little harmless fun” to a crippling addiction?
Gambling addiction is no joke and can impact people from all walks of life. Many people think that process addictions -- gambling, eating disorders, sex, shopping, spending, gaming -- are less serious than a substance use disorder. However, gambling affects the brain in a similar way as drugs or alcohol, activating the same areas of the brain and giving people a similar high. It’s equally as damaging and just as compulsive – especially given the immediate access to gambling through smart phones. The consequences can affect families, careers, and lives just as severely. Therefore, it’s just as critical to end the shame and stigma associated with gambling and empower families to seek support.
Many times, I have a patient who is deep into gambling addiction, and the family will insist the patient must be addicted to drugs. However, he or she is not using drugs. The compulsion to gamble becomes so all-consuming that it mirrors the use of chemical substances. Erratic behavior can manifest in a very similar way – lying, staying out late, stealing money.
So, what are the signs of a gambling problem?
- Dishonesty. It’s not only the lies, but also the manipulation and accusations. If you ask someone about his whereabouts and he lies about it, that should be viewed as a serious concern. For example, someone may suddenly say he’s working late all the time and instead be gambling.
- Missing money. Any unexpected or uncharacteristic behaviors regarding money could be a sign. Perhaps money disappears from wallets or savings accounts, or credit card debt increases suddenly, or there are attempts to take out loans. Making repeated withdrawals from the ATM at a casino is a definite red flag.
- Deflection, rationalizing, minimizing. If you express your concern and your loved one responds with comments like, “It’s not that big of a deal,” “I only do it on Saturdays,” “Get off my back,” or “I provide for this family.” Trust your gut, because an addicted individual may respond in ways that create self-doubt. Chances are there is a behavioral issue that should be addressed.
- Repression or withdrawal. For many, gambling is a form of distraction or escape from emotional pain. Not unlike chemical substances, we treat patients who turned to gambling as a way to cope with their grief and loss. It enables them to avoid thinking about the bigger issues. There is a desire to be engulfed in something, be it slots, online poker, or a football game. If you are told, “I only want to think about this game right now; I don’t want to think about anything else,” it’s a possible red flag. Similarly, a person who withdraws from socializing with friends and family to spend all his time online may have a gambling problem.
- Becoming overly invested in a game. Gambling addicts may pay excessive attention to the details of a game -- such as who won the coin toss -- or have an out-of-proportion response to what’s happening. It’s one thing to be upset when your favorite team loses, but it’s another to throw your phone across the room in anger or get drunk in response. People often become really interested in sports they normally wouldn’t watch. One patient of mine was watching Chinese soccer games in the middle of the night because he needed to make bets all the time. Perhaps that is extreme, but it is indicative of the out-of-proportion reaction or interest that we see with gambling addiction.
- A family history of addiction. Having a history of addiction of any kind in the family can be a risk factor for gambling addiction. Perhaps someone had an alcoholic parent, so they choose not to drink. Instead, they play poker every weekend as a way to decompress. This can very easily become problematic because they still have the same genetic predisposition to addiction.
- Other addictions. There is often much more going on than just gambling. Many of our patients suffer from substance use disorders in addition to gambling addiction. It’s critical that both are addressed as part of any comprehensive treatment plan.
- Proximity to a casino. People are more likely to become problem gamblers if they live within 30 miles of a casino. The closer you are to a casino or race track, the easier it is to just “drop by” for a quick session of gambling. The recent legalization of sports betting creates additional challenges by providing easy access to sports betting, where once the bets could only be handled legally in Las Vegas. The fact that it’s become more socially acceptable also makes it more of a potential relapse trigger for those in recovery from substances or other process addictions.
We must continue to raise awareness that gambling addiction is a chronic disorder that requires a long-term recovery plan. And just as with substance use disorders, it’s important for families impacted by a loved one’s gambling addiction to participate in treatment and receive therapeutic support.
I want those struggling with a gambling problem to know they are not alone. However, early intervention is important because if it left unchecked - the consequences can be devastating. I recommend an immediate behavioral assessment. With the right treatment, gambling addicts do recover and go on to lead healthy and productive lives.