Are you concerned that a friend or loved one has a gambling problem? Is your spouse spending worrisome amounts of time and money on gambling? If so, it might be time to talk about it. March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, an initiative sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), and the theme this year is “Problem Gambling: Have the Conversation.” The goal of the campaign is to encourage friends and loved ones of problem gamblers to muster their courage and broach the subject. Although there’s usually no easy way to start a conversation about problem gambling there are some ways to increase the likelihood of having a productive discussion, says Gary Lange, PhD, LMFT, a provider and supervisor with the California Gambling Education and Treatment Services Program.
Setting the Stage
A big part of broaching this tough topic with a potential problem gambler is not so much what you say as when you say it, explains Dr. Lange. “It’s important to have the conversation when the gambler is not upset, tired or hungry,” he says. “Do it after a meal, in a safe, comfortable setting.” Often, says Lange, the talk will be prompted when the individual is in a financial or personal crisis. A once-healthy bank account is suddenly empty. Bills have gone unpaid. The gambler is out all night at a casino. The crisis is an opportunity to talk about the problem, but it’s important to time the conversation well. If the topic is broached too soon after the crisis, the gambler may be in too much pain or anxiety to respond constructively, Lange notes. The optimal time to talk is a short time later, so that the pain is still there, but it’s not so intense so as to cloud the gambler’s ability to absorb the message. That could mean a few hours or a few days after the crisis; every situation will be a little different.
Often, Lange adds, a spouse and other family members aren’t aware of the problem until extensive damage has been done and the family suddenly is in survival mode. Overnight, they may find themselves going from what they thought was financial security to literally wondering how they’ll afford groceries. In these cases, family members are nearly always in a state of rage, which needs to be managed and controlled before any conversation can take place. “This is not the time to bring out your Uzi,” cautions Lange; the message must be delivered calmly in order to be effective.
Having “The Conversation”
If nothing else, remember that whatever discussion you have should be simple and it should be loving. “I tell clients that it’s a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ conversation,” says Lange. “’Yes, I care about you,’ and ‘no, it’s not OK to gamble away our resources.’” Start with the relationship (“yes, I love you”), then go to the intervention (“no, this is not acceptable”).
You’ll also want to become more aware of your own personality when it comes to dealing with difficult topics and think through the conversation a bit in advance. Are you the type to hang back and avoid confrontation, or are you more aggressive? When working with family members, he says, “I often see people on one end of the spectrum or the other — the passive spouse who can’t imagine bringing up the issue or the person who is just plain livid” and wants to charge into the conversation. If you’re the type to avoid talking about your loved one’s problem gambling at all costs, you might bolster your courage by mentally reviewing all the reasons why this conversation needs to take place. If you’re consumed by anger, then it’s important to wait until you’re calm. “Anger often begets anger, and clouds the message,” adds Lange.
With friends, the advice is similar. “I would encourage a friend to say something like, ‘Let’s go to a neutral place; there’s something I want to talk to you about,’” he says. Write out what you want to say in advance. “The central message is, ‘I love you and care about you; I don’t know if you have a gambling problem for sure, but I’m worried.’” Lange also says to tread carefully. Friends don’t have as much power as family members, he believes, because friendships can be more easily discarded than relationships with family members. “We’ve probably all lost a friendship because we said the right thing at the wrong time,” he notes.
Facing addiction is painful, and the gambling addict will often do just about anything to avoid having a conversation about it. “Sometimes the gambler will say, ‘If you bring this up, then I’ve got a list of your issues,’” says Lange. In those cases, he suggests agreeing to discuss and address the gambler’s list of grievances first, while making it clear that after going over that list, the gambler will discuss your list, which should focus only on the gambling problem. “The shorter your list, the better,” he says.
Of course, not every person who enjoys gambling has a gambling problem. “Having the conversation” might simply be a matter of discussing and adjusting behaviors that are hurting the gambler and others. But compulsive gambling is a different matter. Gambling addiction is a progressive disease, says Lange. Over time it will become worse and require professional help.
Fortunately, if the gambler does agree to seek help there are affordable, accessible counseling and treatment options available. Resources vary by state; California, for example, has funds for treatment through the Office of Problem Gambling, which offers free counseling; if you’re a California resident you can call 800-GAMBLER. Additional resources are available through the NCPG, which has a confidential helpline, 800-522-4700.