Each year, millions of people gamble by playing poker, slot machines, betting on the outcome of a race or ballgame or buying lottery tickets. They might gamble at a casino, at home on a computer or at the racetrack. For the vast majority of them, gambling is fun.
But for an estimated 1 to 3 percent of the population, gambling can slowly and steadily lead to a disorder or a full-fledged pathological gambling addiction, and the consequences can be devastating.
Family and financial problems are often just the beginning. Nearly 90 percent of people with a pathological gambling disorder commit felonies, according to the Mayo Clinic, and suicide rates in prime gambling spots like Las Vegas and Atlantic City are significantly higher than elsewhere (2009).
Symptoms of Pathological Gambling Addiction
When people have a pathological gambling disorder, they can’t control their impulse to gamble, regardless of what it’s doing to their lives. A gambling disorder was first technically defined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), said meeting five of the following criteria merited a pathological gambling disorder diagnosis:
- A preoccupation with gambling
- Being on edge when trying to resist gambling
- Breaking laws to get gambling money
- “Chasing losses” or trying to make up a loss by continued gambling
- A need to keep increasing the size of the bets to maintain the euphoria
- Gambling to escape from problems and personal pain
- Loss of jobs and close relationships because of gambling
- Lying about gambling
- Multiple unsuccessful attempts to control gambling
- Soliciting money from others for gambling or debts.
Development of a Pathological Gambling Disorder and Related Problems
No one knows why some people can place a bet or two without problems and others develop a gambling disorder. Evidence suggests that a tendency towards pathological gambling disorder runs in families, which means it may have a genetic link.
People who start gambling at a young age are more likely to develop a pathological gambling addiction.
Men are more likely to develop a pathological gambling disorder than women, although more and more women are seeking treatment.
People with a pathological gambling addiction also tend to have other mental disorders, such as mood disorders or substance abuse problems.
Treating a Gambling Disorder
Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step self-help program for people with a pathological gambling addiction, maintains that admitting you have a problem is the first, and perhaps the most important, step in getting treatment for a gambling disorder.
After recognizing that compulsive gambling is not a financial problem but an emotional one, patients can pursue therapy, medication and self-help groups to get help with a pathological gambling disorder.
Cognitive behavior therapy, group therapy, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and narcotic antagonists can help patients work through pathological gambling addiction.
Gamblers Anonymous. (n.d.). Questions and answers. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://www.gamblersanonymous.org/qna.html.
Hucker, S. J. (2005). Pathological gambling. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://www.forensicpsychiatry.ca/impulse/gambling.htm.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2009). Compulsive gambling. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/compulsive-gambling/DS00443.
National Center for Responsible Gaming. (n.d.). How many pathological gamblers are there? Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://www.ncrg.org/press_room/faqs-detail.cfm?id=6.