How to help someone with a gambling addiction

Three men gambling on sports

The latest changes in Ohio’s gambling regulation are set to dramatically increase gambling availability in our state as of Jan. 1, 2023. Ohio joins more than 30 other states where fans can bet on sports. As sports betting becomes more easily available, more lives will be devastated by gambling addiction.

Gambling disorder is a chronic health condition. People with gambling disorder find themselves gambling in a way that feels out of control to them, and they have difficulty stopping even after they realize gambling is harming them in some way.

The reasons why people develop an addiction to gambling are complex. Gambling disorder shares risk factors with other types of addiction, such as genetics or life experiences. But perhaps the most important risk factor is gambling availability.

What are signs that gambling might be a problem for a family member?

It’s common for people with gambling disorder to hide their gambling problem. Often, family members don’t become aware of their loved one’s gambling addiction until they begin to suffer the most devastating consequences of this disease, such as bankruptcy, job loss or suicidal behavior.

Friends or loved ones with gambling addiction may have worsening anxiety, mood swings, difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping. They may disengage from relationships and activities that previously gave their lives meaning. They may also be secretive about debts and finances.

What are the signs of gambling addiction?

Gambling might be a problem if you spend a lot of time thinking about gambling, lie to conceal your gambling, or if gambling makes you feel sad or worried. Other signs your gambling has gotten out of control are if you borrow money to gamble, miss work or fail to pay bills on time because of gambling.

What are the specific diagnostic criteria for gambling disorder?

In someone with diagnosed gambling disorder, we see persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as indicated by the individual exhibiting at least four of the following symptoms in a 12-month period:

  • Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired excitement.
  • Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop gambling.
  • Is often preoccupied with gambling. For example, having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble.
  • Often gambles when feeling distressed, such as feeling helpless, guilty, anxious or depressed.
  • After losing money gambling, often returns another day to “get even.” This is known as “chasing” one’s losses.
  • Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  • Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling.

What treatment options are available for people with gambling disorder?

Less than 15% of individuals with gambling disorder receive treatment. This is partly because gambling disorder is hard for affected individuals and their families to talk about. Also, the health care system does a generally poor job of screening for gambling disorder.

There’s no Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for gambling disorder. However, early evidence suggests that naltrexone — a medication commonly prescribed for opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder — may help people stop gambling.

Many people with gambling disorder have other mental health conditions, including depression or anxiety. Medicines to treat these underlying mental health conditions may also help people stop gambling.

The best treatments for gambling disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing. Cognitive behavioral therapy supports people as they challenge distorted thoughts that may be driving them to gamble. Motivational interviewing brings out a person’s own inner strengths and reasons for change. It’s especially helpful when people have mixed feelings about their gambling.

It may also be helpful to seek assistance from groups where people with gambling disorder can support each other to stop gambling. The two largest groups are Gamblers Anonymous and SMART recovery.

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