Gambling addiction is a recognized mental health condition that can have serious and lasting consequences for the individual struggling with it. Problem gambling can lead to damaged and broken relationships, unemployment, severe financial problems, and even homelessness. It can also lead to drug or alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide in extreme conditions.
Although it is a very serious illness, gambling addiction can be treated and managed. There is no cure for any addiction, but with therapy and lifestyle changes it is possible to live without gambling and to restore a normal way of life. If you or someone you care about is struggling with gambling of any type, including online gaming, it is important to reach out for professional help.
What is Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction, which is called gambling disorder by addiction experts, is a real and serious condition. Also known as compulsive gambling, this is a type of behavioral addiction that causes a particular activity or behavior to become out of control and to cause dysfunction in a person’s life. If you are struggling to control your gambling, if you have tried to stop or cut back, and if it is starting to cause difficulties in other areas of life, you could have a real problem.
Much like a drug or alcohol, the act of gambling can become something that can cause addictive behaviors. Gambling, like drugs, activates the reward system in the brain. Some people become adapted to the sensation of playing, winning, losing, and taking risks, and find themselves needing to do it more and more often. Gambling disorder is a genuine addiction that can be diagnosed by mental health professionals.
Signs and Symptoms of a Gambling Disorder
Occasional, and even frequent gambling can be perfectly healthy and normal, so how can you tell when your behaviors, or those of someone you care about, have turned into an addiction? The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes gambling disorder as a diagnosable condition, the first time it has appeared in the manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians.
In order to be diagnosed with gambling disorder, you must have four or more of the following symptoms:
- Needing to gamble more and more money to get the same exciting feeling
- Difficulty cutting back on gambling and feeling irritable or angry when you do
- Multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop or reduce gambling
- Thinking often about gambling and when you’ll do it next
- Gambling when you feel distressed or upset
- Chasing your losses, which means going back to try to break even or get back on top after losing money
- Lying to loved ones and hiding your gambling activities
- Continuing to gamble even when it causes problems at work, in relationships, or in other areas of your life
- Needing money from other people because of what you’ve lost gambling
All of these signs are characteristic of having a gambling addiction, but one of the most important differences between normal and problematic gambling is control. Most people stop when they lose up to a certain limit. Someone with a gambling addiction has a compulsive need to keep going, to try to win that money back and it becomes a destructive cycle.
What Causes Gambling Addiction?
There is no single cause of gambling addiction and no way to know whether one person or another will develop a problem. However, there are known risk factors. These are certain conditions that make it more likely an individual will struggle with compulsive gambling:
- Having an existing mental illness, especially if it is untreated
- Having an impulsive or risk-taking personality
- Being a young or middle-aged man
- A family history of addiction, especially gambling addiction
- Being around gamblers or spending a lot of time in places where people gamble
Abilify and Compulsive Gambling
While an exact cause of gambling disorder is impossible to pin down in most people, those who take a certain medication called Abilify may be able to point the finger at this drug. Abilify is an antipsychotic medication used to treat mental illnesses that cause psychotic symptoms, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
While Abilify comes with warnings about typical side effects and more serious but rare risks, one unusual adverse event has gotten a lot of notice. Some people who used this drug developed behavioral addictions, most often compulsive gambling but sometimes overeating or compulsive shopping disorders. Several case studies have been written about patients who never had these issues until they started using Abilify. The side effect is rare, but it is possible and anyone prescribed the drug should be aware of it. Because the makers of Abilify never warned doctors or the public of this risk, patients and their families have started lawsuits over the harm it has caused.
Consequences of Gambling Disorder
Gambling is always a risk, but most people know how to limit and mitigate that risk. Someone with a gambling disorder struggles to control their behavior, and this can lead to serious complications if the condition is not managed. Broken relationships, lost jobs, financial difficulties, even legal problems or going to jail can result from uncontrolled gambling. This compulsive behavior can also negatively impact physical and mental health and even trigger substance use disorders or suicide attempts.
Treatment and Getting Help
The consequences of gambling disorder go well beyond simply losing money. For this reason it is essential to get help. The problem behavior won’t resolve simply by strength of will; this is a real mental illness that requires professional support to resolve. With good treatment you can learn to live without gambling and can take steps to restore normal activities in your life and to repair the damage gambling has caused.
Treatment for gambling disorder can involve a combination of therapy, medications, and group support. As with Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group can be a big help in maintaining a gambling-free life over the long term. However, getting more professional support provides a good starting point. Addiction experts can provide behavioral therapy that will help you learn how to change your behaviors and negative thoughts and how to cope with the urges to gamble without giving in. You may also benefit from certain medications, like mood stabilizers or antidepressants, but drugs alone are never the only solution to gambling addiction.
If you are struggling to stop gambling and the rest of your life is suffering because you can’t stop, it’s time to get help. If it is someone you care about who is compulsively gambling, reach out and offer help. There are effective ways to manage this condition and to learn how to stop gambling for good.