A very common myth among people about troubling social issues such as poverty, chronic illness, addiction and crime is the idea that if you don’t match the statistical profile of the problem you’re safe. People with high-paying jobs don’t imagine themselves falling into poverty because they are doing so well.
In reality, anything can lead to a change in your income, wealth or well-being. People fall prey to the false sense of invulnerability, thinking it can’t happen to me all the time. You never expect to receive a traffic ticket or be involved in an accident, but most drivers eventually experience both.
Worse, people don’t realize that they don’t need to fall into the extreme end of a statistical distribution to feel the effects of a bad situation. You don’t need to become addicted to gambling to make bad gambling decisions.
Responsible gambling is an important initiative that all bettors should carefully weigh. If you think about it, an addict is less likely to say I need to take a break from this than someone who is not trapped in the downward trend of self-destructive behavior.
The purpose of the responsible gambling initiative is to help people assess how much energy they are investing in gambling before it becomes a problem. But it also serves as a guide to help people who recognize they have a problem get back on a healthy path in life.
Awareness is everyone’s first line of defense against a chronic condition, whether it be poverty, illness, addiction or another problem.
Where did responsible gambling begin?
The responsible gambling movement arose from several initiatives. Gamblers Anonymous, a voluntary social treatment program, began in 1957. But for many years gambling addiction was considered someone else’s problem by society.
Psychologists have studied gambling addiction or gambling disorders for decades. Although it’s not listed as a sin in the Bible, many consider gambling to be one of society’s main sins because its history is so deeply associated with crime, alcoholism and other harmful behaviors.
People have always taken risks, and even children make wagers naturally. Most people manage their risk-taking and gambling behavior well. But some people lose control.
Many credit American doctor Robert L. Custer with highlighting the need to treat compulsive gambling as a behavioral disorder. His foundational work in the field began in 1972 and gained momentum when he set up a clinic for compulsive gamblers with the Veterans Administration in 1974 in Brecksville, Ohio.
Prior to that time, psychologists held the Freudian point of view that people became compulsive gamblers to replace sexual gratification in their lives. Custer believed otherwise, firmly believing compulsive gamblers were trying to escape pain.
Thanks to Custer’s work, in 1980 the American Psychiatric Association classified compulsive gambling as a behavioral disorder. Thanks to Custer’s dedication, people around the world like Canadian Tibor Barsony — a gambling addict who served time in prison for embezzlement — launched foundations to raise awareness of and cultivate community support for treating gambling disorders.
National governments around the world now recognize the seriousness of gambling disorders, and regulatory commissions work with casinos and other betting organizations to inform customers of local resources to help them deal with compulsive gambling.
Although statistics vary by study and context, anywhere from 3% to 5% of the adult population is believed to suffer from a gambling disorder or to be close to matching a clinical analysis. The responsible gambling movement seeks to help those people through preventive awareness and ensuring everyone who needs it has access to community support.
Compulsive gambling is not “just a mental health problem”
Despite the advances in social policy spurred by Custer’s efforts, another myth has arisen around gambling disorders. And that is that it is just a mental health problem. Like other simple misclassifications, this assumption makes it easy for people to avoid facing the reality of the situation.
Medical researchers have determined that gambling alters brain activity the same way drugs and alcohol do. Every brain forms strong or weak pathways based on behavior. This is how we learn and condition ourselves to respond to certain stimuli.
Furthermore, research shows that pathological gamblers’ brains handle endorphins differently from most people. This is true of many behaviors including sex, smoking, drinking alcohol, running, watching sports and winning a contest. Brain chemistry plays an important role in decision-making and habitual behavior.
The stigma attached to addictive behaviors obscures the fact that anyone can become addicted to something. It’s not someone else’s problem. By studying how the body rewards itself for certain behaviors, scientists have learned that becoming compulsive is not a matter of simple choice.
Addictive behavior may start quickly, but in most people it develops gradually over time without warning. By the time a person’s friends and family realize he is an addict, the addiction is already a chronic condition. A few drugs like crack may be immediately addictive, but gambling is not.
What are the signs of compulsive gambling?
No one expects you to self-diagnose and treat your health problems. All that you need to do is realize when something is wrong in your life.
A compulsive disorder changes how a person thinks. If you’re thinking about gambling all the time and find it hard to think about other topics — having lost interest in them — you may have a gambling disorder.
If you increase your wagers over time because betting smaller amounts no longer feels rewarding, that’s another sign you may have a problem.
If you’ve attempted to reduce your gambling but keep falling back into the habit, you may have lost control.
Compulsive gamblers also start believing they only need to win back what they have lost to make things right. This is one of a number of fallacies addicts are prone to. Instead of recognizing your need to fix yourself, you’re trying to fix a problem your behavior has created.
Compulsive gamblers also lie frequently to friends and family about where they go, what they do, their finances, and how much they are struggling.
Any addiction can lead you to begin cheating or stealing in order to get the money you need to keep feeding the addiction. Supplementing an income with theft to support a habit is a strong sign of an addiction problem.
Constantly asking people for money, abandoning or ending relationships and working only irregularly may also be signs of a compulsive behavior problem.
Compulsive gambling may be only one of several problems
Why do you gamble too much and take unrealistic risks?
This is an important question for people who are concerned about their gambling behavior. There may be other unresolved issues that need to be managed carefully.
As an example, people with post traumatic stress disorder may indulge in self-destructive behaviors such pushing away friends and family, becoming addicted, and lying to themselves and everyone.
If you have been diagnosed with another mental health issue, you may be at higher risk for succumbing to a gambling disorder. Some medications used to treat chronic conditions may disrupt your otherwise good judgment and lead you to make bad decisions about gambling.
It is never a good idea to gamble while under the influence of alcohol or recreational drugs, but many prescriptions may also impair your judgment. One class of drugs called dopamine antagonists may contribute to compulsive gambling through side effects.
How does responsible gambling work?
Responsible gambling is a self-mandated intervention. It begins with you.
The first step is recognizing that you’re not comfortable with the amount of time and money you spend gambling. Experts recommend you step away from gambling for a few months, even as much as a year.
Being able to appreciate other qualities of life without suffering a deep sense of loss is a good sign. Take a break from gambling and practice relaxing.
If you find it’s not as easy as just walking away, you can seek help from state and local community resources. Visit the Responsible Gambling Council website in Canada or the National Council on Problem Gambling in the United States to learn more about how you can take action for yourself.
Steps you can take may include notifying casinos where you have accounts that you are putting yourself on break. They’ll prevent you from depositing more funds into your account or playing for real money until your self-exclusion period of abstinence is complete.
Research has shown that self-exclusion can be as beneficial as counseling, although everyone’s needs are unique.
You can also seek out a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous and visit its meetings. If you’re in doubt about whether self-exclusion alone is the right choice for you, discussing your situation and needs with other people who understand your challenges is very helpful. Professional counseling is also available in many areas.
Research into alternative strategies reveals that self-imposed limits don’t work for most people. One main reason may be because compulsive gamblers are trying to fix their financial problems by gambling even more. So when they lose again they continue to gamble to fix the broken fix.
Frequently asked questions about compulsive gambling
People have many questions about gambling disorders and how responsible gambling may help them.
Does any kind of gambling contribute more or less to compulsive gambling?
No, the way you gamble doesn’t matter. This is a hopeful question, implying you’d like to continue gambling in a safer way. That’s a warning sign.
Gambling and risk-taking in general cause changes to our brain chemistry. Winning and losing also induce changes in brain chemistry. This is a normal response to stimulating experiences. The type of gambling you engage in doesn’t matter.
Do casinos and other gambling businesses cause problem gambling?
You can no more catch problem or compulsive gambling from visiting a casino or racetrack than you can contract alcoholism from visiting a bar.
Casinos have a reputation for creating a comfortable, timeless environment. Players tend to lose track of the time, become somewhat sleepy, and may drink to excess if they spend a lot of time in a casino. And yet the majority of casino customers do not become compulsive gamblers.
If the venue were causing the problem, experts would predict that more people would become compulsive gamblers.
Are certain types of people more prone to becoming problem gamblers?
This is another question that may serve to deflect responsibility from oneself. Although research shows that certain groups of people may be statistically more vulnerable to developing a compulsive disorder around gambling, you are not preselected for that disorder.
Some genetic conditions may make it easier for certain people to succumb to compulsive disorders, but many people with those genes don’t. Researchers have only found a correlation, not an explanation or a cause-and-effect relationship.
Research has shown that younger people are more likely to become compulsive gamblers, especially adolescents. Current theory holds that younger brains are less fully developed and therefore have fewer defenses against developing bad habits. This is why society doesn’t allow 14-year-olds to run governments.
In short, being in a high-risk group doesn’t mean you’re predisposed to becoming a compulsive gambler. If you’re wondering whether you have a gambling problem, where you fall into anyone’s statistical measurement doesn’t matter.
Do compulsive gamblers lose more money than other gamblers?
You can only lose as much money as you have to gamble with or — worse — as you can borrow. Your gambling losses don’t reveal whether you have a problem.
Compulsive gamblers may win money for a while before hitting a losing streak. Although compulsive gamblers are more likely to make poor choices, gambling is by its very nature governed by random chance in a fair gaming environment.
It’s better to look at other factors where your behavior has changed over time.
Although estimates vary, only a small percentage of the adult population has a gambling compulsion or may be prone to such behavior. Most estimates fall in the 3% to 5% range. Still, that doesn’t mean other people aren’t affected by gambling disorders.
Anyone whose lifestyle has changed because of addiction is probably affecting other people’s lifestyles, especially adults with family responsibilities.
Responsible gambling is a worldwide effort to help people take control of their lives, strengthen their bonds to friends and family, and free themselves from a burden that grows heavier every year it is ignored.
There is no shame in admitting you’ve lost control. And fortunately there are effective ways to get help.