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Gambling Addiction: Facts and Treatment

When a new casino opened nearby, the local news broadcasts were full of the opening day celebration. There were tours of the awesome new buildings. There was enthusiastic talk about the projected tax revenues that would come into the city. There were stories about how many new jobs had been created. There were positive projections about increased tourism to the area and the positive impact that would have on businesses. All this is probably true, or at least partly true. But there is a flip side to all this excitement.

During the many days of broadcasts, I saw only one interview with someone who raised concerns about the possible negative impact of the arrival of a venue for legal gambling in our area. I share those concerns. Although gambling can be enjoyed responsibly, I have treated too many people with gambling addiction to be unconcerned about possible negative consequences to both individuals and our area when opportunities for gambling become more available and acceptable.

In fact, a study in Iowa found that problem gambling more than tripled after the arrival of Native American casinos and riverboat gambling. Other states, like Mississippi and Louisiana, that have had casinos or casino-like settings for many years, have higher rates of gambling addictions than other similar states that have only limited opportunities to gamble. Gamblers Anonymous has hotlines in every state.

Online Poker: Harmless Entertainment or Serious Problem?

Yes, gambling can be harmless entertainment. In fact, around 80 percent of  U.S. adults gamble at some point in their lives. It doesn’t take a casino. People buy lottery tickets, go to race tracks, participate in friendly games of poker with friends and bet in football pools at the office. Depending on how someone uses it, online poker can be harmless entertainment or a serious problem. Many, many more people participate in gambling than develop an addiction to it.

However, studies show that three to four percent of American adults do have a gambling problem. That’s about six through eight million people who have developed a serious addiction! Casinos don’t create problem gamblers. But ease of opportunity for gambling (and especially if the individual wins at times) does increase the probability that someone with a propensity to become a pathological gambler will develop the disorder. People who feel compelled to gamble find it almost impossible to resist their impulse to do it. Ultimately, it affects every aspect of a person’s life.

When an individual’s gambling is out of control, the ability to think clearly suffers. Despite losses, pathological gamblers stay at the table or at the betting booth, believing that “this time” they will hit it big. They may engage in “magical thinking,” believing they are seeing patterns in the cards that don’t exist or a “winning message” in the name of a horse. They may lie to themselves about the extent of their desperate financial situation believing that the next big win will take care of it.

Gambling Addicts Have Other Addictions As Well

Further, many gambling addicts have other addictions as well. According to one study, 75% of gamblers had a mood disorder, 41/3% had an anxiety order and 60.8% had a personality disorder. Another study found that 75% abused alcohol and 38% abused illegal drugs.

The gambler’s problem often becomes a problem for his or her families and communities. People who are pathological gamblers often become pathological liars about it. They lose the trust of their family and friends. Often they gamble away money they can’t afford to lose – and their families suffer for it. Money that should have gone for rent or food or medical expenses goes instead to the betting habit.

As stress about finances increase, they sometimes resort to stealing from their families or even robbing businesses. Many marriages and relationships collapse over fights about money. Employment suffers as the gambler misuses sick time to gamble and may even steal from the employer. The legal system becomes burdened and community resources become strained.

Recovery Takes a Comprehensive Treatment Plan

The good news is that gambling addiction can be treated. An individual can quit, recover and repair the many aspects of life that have been affected. Financial, social, and legal problems can be tackled. Family relationships can sometimes be repaired.

Recovery usually takes a treatment plan that includes multiple interventions and a commitment to the process. Successful treatment often includes the following components.

Ø  Any co-morbid mental health or addiction issues need to be addressed. This requires therapy specific to the diagnosis.

Ø  Medication: There is no medication that will “cure” gambling compulsions. But medication may be important for treating whatever other diagnosis is present.

Ø  Individual therapy focused on the gambling addiction provides practical help and ongoing support. Research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy is most useful for helping the gambler develop new and more positive ways to think about themselves and the role addiction is playing in their lives. Since gambling often is a way for a gambling addict to deal with difficult emotions or a negative self esteem, therapy also focuses on replacement strategies for self-management.

Ø  Since a gambling addiction frequently causes loss of trust, financial issues, and even domestic violence and child abuse or neglect, family therapy is often an essential element of treatment. Not all families can recover from the lies and negative emotional and financial impact caused by the gambler. But family treatment can increase the odds.

Ø  A financial planner or lawyer may be needed to create a plan for managing debts or bankruptcy.

Ø  Used in combination with other treatment modalities, self-help groups can help keep a person on track for recovery. Gamblers Anonymous (GA) like Alcoholics Anonymous, is a 12 step program. Although some research shows a success rate of under 8% when used alone, it can provide important ancillary support for treatment when a patient attends regularly.

Similarly, some people find it is helpful to talk online to others who are struggling with the same problem. Online support has the advantage of being available almost 24/7. Participation in self-help forums like those here at PsychCentral offers a lifeline when the urge to gamble is strong or when a person is discouraged.


Gambling Addiction: Facts and Treatment

Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. is an author, licensed psychologist, and a marriage and family therapist who has been in practice for more than 35 years. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central and one of the therapists who answer questions at Ask the Therapist.


APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Gambling Addiction: Facts and Treatment. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 11, 2018, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Oct 2018
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