Gambling and Your Mental Health

May is mental health awareness month. The association between poor mental health and problem gambling is not frequently addressed, so let’s talk about it.

First of all, not all gambling is problematic. Controlled gambling can be a source of entertainment or social activity. However, gambling can become an addiction that requires professional intervention with a focus on recovery. Millions of Americans, and their loved ones, are impacted by problem gambling.  The good news is that recovery resources are plentiful and widely available.

What are mental health risk factors for problem gambling?  Mental health challenges such as depression, substance abuse, and anxiety are often associated with problem gambling.  Additionally, those people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are also at elevated risk of developing a gambling addiction.

On the other hand, problem gambling can worsen or complicate mental health challenges.  Complications of problem gambling increase levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of self-harm and suicide. 

How do I know if I, or someone I care about, has problem gambling challenges?  Gambling can be an addiction, and those who suffer from it often attempt to hide the addiction.  Signs include preoccupation with gambling, irritability or restlessness when cutting down on gambling, chasing losses, asking for bailouts, and resorting to theft or fraud for gambling money. Similarly to those with substance addictions, people with a gambling addiction have difficulty cutting back or stopping.

How can I help?  Problem gambling addiction can happen to anyone.  It is not a financial issue, so providing funds or paying off debts will not aid in recovery.  A gambler must WANT help.  Assistance and resources are available on the web from the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling and mdproblemgambling.com, and by phone at 1-800-GAMBLER. These sites provide help for gamblers themselves, loved ones, treatment professionals, and clergy.

Gambling becomes problematic when it compromises personal relationships, work, and resource management.  Problem gambling can result in severe financial and personal loss.  If you or someone you know faces gambling challenges, know that help is available and recovery is achievable.

Especially for Teens – Let’s Talk about Gambling

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, so let’s have a serious talk about gambling. And by gambling, I’m referring to the activity of betting: the practice of risking money or other valuables in a game or bet. Gambling is taking on a risk with the hope of an uncertain gain. Some examples of gambling are betting on sports teams or card games for money, playing the lottery and using online gambling sites. 

Why do people gamble?  Gambling can be a form of fun or entertainment. Some teens only gamble during games among friends, and keep the risk low by using only tokens, treats, or small change. The activity of gambling is not necessarily a problem, as long as it is managed well.     

Why is this important?  Evidence indicates that about 6% of teens under the age of 18 have a serious gambling problem. That doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but what that means is that in a class of 30 people, 1-2 of your classmates are facing this challenge. About 80% of youth have participated in some form of gambling, and 10-15% are at risk of gambling becoming an addiction.  

How can gambling become a problem?  Gambling can become risky in several ways.  One is when it becomes obsessive. The reality of gambling is that you are much more likely to lose money than you are to win. Over time, very few people come out ahead financially with gambling. However, after losing money, the common reaction is to “play again” in an attempt to win back losses. This almost never works. Instead, more money is lost.  

Gambling also becomes a problem when it starts to become addictive. Gambling can actually activate the brain’s reward system, much like addictive substances. Someone with a gambling addiction feels a need to continue gambling. 

What happens when gambling becomes a problem?  People experiencing gambling challenges put their future success at risk. Instead of having money to reach life goals and pay living expenses, it becomes lost to gambling organizations. People addicted to gambling sometimes resort to stealing from friends and family, and often start to suffer from depression and poor health.  

What can you do?  Nobody intends to have a gambling problem, or hurt themselves, their friends, and their family. If you or someone you care about is facing life challenges caused by gambling, talk ASAP to a trusted counselor. Confidential help is available on-line, or by calling 1-800-GAMBLER.