A gambling addiction can be extremely serious. Gambling is a widely accessible pastime that has been around in one form or another for many centuries. Lots of people enjoy gambling on an occasional basis, such as placing an annual bet on the Grand National or attending an event at a casino for a special occasion.
Most people will gamble for fun and realise that it is not a reliable or effective way to earn money. For some people though, gambling can turn into an addiction; this is also known as problem gambling.
There are many settings a person can visit to gamble in. These include:
- Bingo halls.
- Betting shops.
Online gambling websites are also widely accessible on computers, phones or other electronic devices. For anyone over the age of eighteen, it is possible to purchase lottery tickets and instant-win scratchcards at just about any supermarket or convenience store. For those suffering from a gambling addiction, temptation can now be found almost anywhere.
In the 2019/20 annual report from leading UK charity GamCare, they confirmed the majority of callers to their helplines reported using online facilities for their gambling activities. Over 30% also noted using betting shops. Just 1% reported using bingo halls to gamble and 3% of callers disclosed concerns over buying scratchcards.
This suggests that taking part in certain types of gambling may pose a higher risk of developing problems. It could also suggest that the wide availability of certain types of gambling facilities is fuelling addiction.
Addiction can be defined as a person engaging in a particular behaviour on a repeat basis, despite it causing harm to themselves or those around them.
Problem gambling is thought to affect up to 593,000 people in the UK. Gambling addicts show patterns of behaviour where they continue to partake in gambling activities despite suffering negative consequences as a direct result. Some gambling addicts can also be categorised as pathological gamblers if they fit certain criteria. Pathological gambling is indicative of a deeper mental health issue.
There are two main types of gambling:
This is where gamblers place bets on situations which have outcomes based entirely on chance.
Gambling activities which have random or chance outcomes include:
Gamblers can study the odds and learn skills to predict outcomes. They can also develop their abilities with practice.
Skill based gambling activities include:
- Racing (horse, greyhound etc).
- Sporting events.
For severe gambling addicts, their thought processes become distorted and they begin to believe, despite their losses, that gambling is a reliable way to earn money. Some addicts will continually chase the endorphin ‘high’ of winning. Others may engage in ritualistic or obsessive patterns of behaviour, believing they can influence random outcomes or continually mitigate their losses as they just need to place that one ‘lucky bet’.
The six categories of gambling types
Psychiatrist Dr Robert L. Custer is considered a pioneer in the categorisation and treatment of compulsive gamblers. In 1974, after opening his first clinic in Ohio, he began to publicise his theory that gambling should be treated as a ‘behaviour disorder’. Custer believed that people gambled compulsively to escape pain rather than for reward or gratification and he considered gambling addiction to be a disease.
Gambling intersects society and can be seen across all classes, genders and, in one form another, across the globe. Certain patterns have, however, been identified within specific groups of people which has helped to classify the six types of gamblers that exist.
- Professional Gamblers see gambling as their occupation. They are not preoccupied with ‘luck’ but will spend time calculating statistics and studying the odds of winning their bets. They often take part in lengthy, high stakes games such as poker tournaments.
- Anti-social Gamblers are often attracted to the illegal aspects of gambling and may have a history of crime or anti-social behaviour. Some psychologists believe people with personality disorders such as ASPD (anti-social personality disorder) are more vulnerable to addiction issues. They often make impulsive decisions without considering the repercussions and lack remorse and empathy for others.
- Casual Social Gamblers are at a low risk of developing an addiction and will see gambling as a hobby or recreational activity and make no attempt to hide it from others.
- Serious Social Gamblers will view gambling as their primary recreation but can maintain an interest in other aspects of their life. Although most are able to control their gambling habits, they are at risk from developing addictive behaviour especially after a big win or in times of extreme stress. People on the outside may view their dedication to gambling as excessive.
- Relief and Escape Gamblers use gambling as a way to deal with their emotions. These types of people are often vulnerable and may suffer from depression, anxiety, isolation or have a history of trauma. They can become easily engaged in a vicious cycle of gambling as a temporary escape from their reality. Relief and escape gamblers are more likely to be female.
- Compulsive Gamblers are suffering from pathological gambling which is a recognised psychological disorder. They will continue to gamble despite obvious, negative consequences and will often have mental health or substance abuse problems.
The common signs and problems with gambling
Gambling should be considered a problem when it impacts negatively on a person’s job, relationships, day-to-day life, finances or mental or physical health. It is not always obvious to the gambler that their gambling has become an issue and they may hide the true extent of their actions from their loved ones.
The impacts of a gambling addiction can range from minor financial and family problems to severe debt, divorce, mental breakdown and in extreme cases suicide.
Signs you may notice in a gambling addict can include:
- A preoccupation with gambling, constantly checking on bets and results and difficulty concentrating on anything else.
- Unwillingness to stop gambling, refusing to admit they have a problem or anger towards anyone who questions their behaviour.
- Secrecy – lying about their whereabouts or their finances.
- Financial problems, debt letters or debt collectors arriving, maxed-out overdrafts.
- Criminal behaviour such as stealing money or manipulating people into financing their gambling habits.
- Patterns of behaviour that revolve around mitigating losses – the gambler may be convinced they just need ‘one big win’ and everything will be okay.
- Their gambling is bringing negative consequences to family or professional life, such as arguing with spouse, job loss, disciplinary at work, unauthorised absences.
- They may appear withdrawn, depressed and hopeless.
GamCare claimed that last year 43% of callers to their National Gambling Helplines mentioned impacts on their mental wellbeing including anxiety, depression, isolation and even suicidal feelings.
Mental health problems are often associated with addiction. Problem gambling can be harmful to a person’s physical, emotional and psychological health. Gambling addicts will often experience feelings of depression and anxiety and can also develop severe migraines and sleep disorders as a result of their addiction.
Other negative consequences resulting from their gambling, such as debt or family breakdown, will add to an addict’s feelings of depression and hopelessness making them feel like they are on a downward spiral.
One of the most common problems associated with compulsive gambling or gambling addiction is debt. In 2019, GamCare revealed that over the past year 74% of callers reported some level of debt caused by their gambling. The majority of callers reported debt of less than £5,000, however, a further 10% revealed having debts between £20,000 and £99,000.
It is commonplace for gamblers to try to conceal their debts or to attempt to minimise the financial problems they are incurring. To this end, their loved ones or partners often have no idea of the true extent of existing debts that have been caused by gambling.
Once a person gets trapped in a cycle of debt it can be difficult to find a way out. Gambling addicts may continue to gamble as a means to get out of debt by convincing themselves that further gambling is a legitimate means to earn the money that they need, without considering the risks of losing and therefore owing even more.
Other problems associated with debt can include CCJs, homelessness, bankruptcy and even criminal activity. Debts can also take their toll on family and relationships as well as a person’s mental wellbeing.
Gambling addiction can sometimes be synonymous with other types of addictive behaviour including alcoholism or drug addiction. A study conducted in 2017 by Imperial College London, suggested that gambling addiction activated the same pathways in the brain as drug or alcohol cravings.
The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and indicated that there are two areas in the brain, the insula and nucleus accumbens, that show high levels of activity when gambling addicts are experiencing cravings. Activity in these particular areas of the brain, which are involved in decision-making, reward and impulse control, has been associated in past studies with drug and alcohol cravings.
Scientists consider there to be a genetic aspect to gambling addiction, as there is research that suggests a correlation between the children of gambling addicts and a higher risk of addiction, however, the exact biology of addiction is still being explored.
Further research into this will hopefully lead to more targeted treatment for addicts. Treatments for the condition currently include talking therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) self-help groups or medications that help to combat cravings, such as narcotic antagonist Naltrexone, which is also prescribed to substance abusers.
Compulsive gambling and the negative impact of addiction can also cause relationship breakdown – the obsessive and often hidden nature of gambling addiction can often cause a feeling of isolation and mistrust within relationships. This can lead to divorce, estrangement and the breakdown of family relationships.
Many gambling addicts do not want their families to know the extent of their addictions or spiralling debts and will try to hide it because of feelings of shame or because they do not want to be stopped. Once the truth comes to light it can put a huge strain on marriages or other family relationships.
Self-exclusion is a way to restrict your ability to gamble online or in a licensed premises for a fixed amount of time, usually six months to five years. Once you have entered into a self-exclusion, the responsibility to stick to it remains with the individual; however, gambling companies must close your account, return any balance you may have to you and remove your details from their marketing database.
You can sign up here to self-exclude yourself from all online operators quickly and easily. Since March 2020, all online operators that are Gambling Commission licensed are required to participate in GAMSTOP, however, you can also self-exclude from each individual operator if you wish.
Between April 2017 and March 2018, the number of self-exclusion breaches came to approximately 18.41 thousand. If you do break your self-exclusion agreement, you should report this to the Gambling Commission and the gambling premises you used.
By reporting any breaches, you are helping with the collection of statistics, identifying weaknesses that allow self-excluded individuals to gamble and potentially helping to identify extra safeguarding methods that are required to ensure full compliance in future.
If you or someone that you know is suffering from a gambling addiction, seek help. GamCare have advisers available 24/7 on their freephone helpline: call 0808 8020 133 to speak to an expert. You can also speak to other addicts, who will have experience of your situation, using their online forum or group chat facility; details can be found here.
You can also reach out to your GP for help or use the resources on the NHS choices website where there is a helpful questionnaire that can help you to define whether you are a problem gambler.
You should also seek the help of family and friends who can support you both emotionally and signpost you to organisations that can give practical advice on issues such as debt. By admitting that you may have a problem with gambling, you are taking a vital first step towards recovery.