Gambling addiction –also known as “pathological gambling” or “compulsive gambling” – is a serious mental health disorder. Those struggling with this condition are unable to control the urge to bet; in fact, they will gamble so excessively that it leads to serious consequences including damaged relationships, ruined careers, and financial devastation.
This particular addiction affects an estimated 2 million Americans. In addition, another 4 to 6 million struggle with what’s commonly called problem gambling. They don’t meet all the criteria for a gambling addiction, but their behaviors are serious enough to cause problems in their lives.
Like any addiction, pathological gambling is a complex disorder. Many factors can contribute to its development.
Following are some of the most salient risk factors that can increase one’s vulnerability to a gambling addiction.
Research suggests that individuals under the age of 35 may be more prone to developing a gambling addiction. One of the most likely reasons for this is the fact that younger individuals are more likely to seek out new sensations and act impulsively than their older counterparts, according to a study in PsychCentral.
Although younger folks tend to have an increased risk for compulsive gambling, older individuals are also at risk, revealed a 2005 report in Psychiatry. Senior gamblers are often more likely to play in order to relieve unwanted feelings such as loneliness or anxiety. Additionally, seniors now have wider access to wagering through gambling websites and apps, providing more opportunity for an addiction to develop, right from the comfort of home. Health plays a role in compulsive gambling among older individuals as well. Dementia and other types of cognitive impairment make it difficult for older seniors to make reasonable decisions when wagering.
Furthermore, casinos and licensed gaming facilities have been known to market perks specifically toward older gamblers. For example, many places offer free transportation, discounted meals, or free drinks to seniors, all of which are appealing – especially to those on a fixed income. Organized bus trips for seniors, in particular, can be very appealing to those who’ve become socially isolated or lost a spouse to death or divorce. The trips offer entertainment and the fellowship of other seniors.
While it’s not unusual to view gambling addiction as a problem that primarily impacts men, many women struggle with it as well. Experts estimate that 1 out of every 3 gambling addicts is a member of the fairer sex. Although women develop the addiction at somewhat lower rates than men, they appear more likely to do so later in life than male addicts.
It’s critical for individuals, families, and health care professionals to recognize and address this condition in women. Research suggests that women become addicted to gambling quickly; often within a year from when they first start placing bets. In contrast, it takes men an average of four years to develop a gambling addiction. This highlights the importance of getting a woman with gambling problems into treatment as soon as possible.
Mental Health Issues
The presence of certain psychiatric disorders also boosts the risk for a gambling addiction. It’s not uncommon for compulsive gamblers to suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. For example, individuals with bipolar disorder often engage in high risk behaviors during manic or hypomanic episodes. Gambling would certainly fall into this category, especially for someone whose judgment is impaired and who’s highly impulsive. Manic individuals are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to the euphoria and excitement that gambling provides. Depressive episodes can make them vulnerable to using gambling as a form of distraction and a way to self-medicate painful emotions.
Specific personality traits have been connected to an increased risk for compulsive gambling. Researchers discovered that pathological gamblers tend to be more impulsive by nature. Furthermore, one 30-year study found that participants with an “under-controlled” temperament at age three were more than twice as likely to have a gambling disorder as adults than those who had been considered “well-adjusted” as children.
As with many other mental health disorders, including depression and substance abuse, gambling addiction may also have a genetic element. One study found that when one identical twin has a gambling addiction, the other twin is more likely to develop it as well. This risk was higher among identical twins than fraternal twins.
In addition to genetics, family environment can also contribute to the development of a gambling addiction. For example, children of gambling addicts are often exposed to wagering and other types of gambling activity at an early age. Researchers discovered that teenagers who had received scratch-off lottery tickets as gifts were more likely to report symptoms of problem gambling later in life. Such a gift sends the message that gambling is acceptable. This type of home environment can promote gambling behavior in children and adolescents.
Some prescription drugs raise the risk for impulsive behavior, which in turn increases the risk for a gambling addiction. Parkinson’s disease is often treated with medications known as dopamine agonists, according to a study in The Psychiatric Times. Research suggests that individuals taking these particular drugs may be more likely to demonstrate impulse control problems and disordered gambling behavior.
Recent attention on the health of current and former military members has focused on issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and suicide. Gambling addiction is also a growing concern for American veterans. A 2011 Clinical Psychiatry News study revealed that 8% of vets show symptoms of problem gambling, while an additional 2% have a gambling addiction – numbers that are approximately twice the rate for the general population. The researchers also found that male and female veterans had about the same rates of problem and pathological gambling. This contrasts with the general population, in which, as noted earlier, men struggle at higher rates than women.
Like other addictions, gambling addiction is treatable. Treatment often involves a combination of talk therapy, support groups, lifestyle changes, and, in some cases, medication. If another mental health disorder, such as a substance abuse disorder or major depression, contributes to excessive gambling, then that condition will also require treatment if the addiction treatment is to be effective.
If you are finding it hard to stop gambling, or if you’re already suffering from consequences related to your gambling behavior, it’s time to get help. There are many treatment facilities as well as individuals mental health professionals who specialize in treatment gambling addiction. The longer you wait to get help, the more serious the problem will become, and the more devastating the consequences will be. Pick up the phone and set up an appointment for an evaluation. From there, you and an addiction specialist can determine the best course of treatment. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can be on the path to recovery.