Gambling addiction can have devastating effects on your finances, relationships, and emotional well-being. Given the stigma of addiction, it can take a lot of courage to get help.
Yet gambling addiction is treatable. Many people get counseling for gambling problems each year. You are not alone.
People with a gambling addiction have many options for treatment. They may use different strategies as their situations change. Available treatments may include:
- Residential facilities: Many residential treatment centers across the United States specialize in treating addiction. Specially trained staff provide constant care and lead daily therapeutic activities. Settings can range from hospitals to non-medical environments. Inpatient settings offer a comprehensive approach to treatment by addressing one’s biological, psychological, and social needs.
- Intensive outpatient programs: Intensive outpatient services are designed to provide nine or more hours of structured therapy per week. Outside of therapy, the person is typically in charge of their own schedule. These programs can serve as a step-down service from a residential treatment center. They can also prevent the need for a higher level of care.
- Psychotherapy and counseling: When treating gambling addiction, research suggests psychotherapy is more effective than medication. Modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy and systematic exposure therapy can help individuals “retrain” their brains to reduce the urge to gamble.
- Support groups: Peer support and self-help programs are common treatments for problem gambling. Step-based programs such as Gamblers Anonymous are often modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. There are also support groups for the family and friends of people with a gambling addiction.
- Medication: Medications used to treat substance addiction may prove effective for gambling addiction as well. Opioid antagonists inhibit the production of dopamine and seem to reduce the urge to gamble. Other medications that show promise include anti-seizure medications, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants.
An individual’s gambling addiction may also harm their family and friends. Witnessing gambling addiction from the outside can be stressful.
For example, if the gambler lies about how much they gamble, loved ones may feel betrayed when they learn the truth. Family and friends may experience financial hardship if they must pay off the gambler’s debt.
Due to the secretive nature of gambling addiction, loved ones may not discover the problem until serious damage has occurred. Social stigma can make the topic difficult to address in conversation. These tips and tools can help guide loved ones through difficult situations:
- Educate yourself. Find out as much as you can about gambling addiction, symptoms, and available treatments.
- Be prepared. Choose the right time (e.g. after a gambling spree) and provide fact-based evidence that there is a problem (e.g. unpaid bills, missed work, etc.).
- Avoid blame. When broaching the subject, avoid accusatory statements that put the individual down. At the same time, you do not have to take personal responsibility for your loved one’s actions.
- Stay supportive. Remain calm and honor the person's struggle. Acknowledge their efforts. Express your care and concern.
- Maintain healthy boundaries. Say no when you need to. Refrain from providing monetary support when possible. Helping the person financially will likely enable further gambling.
- Create a network. Seek help from family, friends, support groups, and counselors. Connect with appropriate resources to protect yourself from abusive situations.
Some people with gambling addiction choose to join a self-exclusion program. When someone signs up for one of these programs, they become legally banned from casinos of their choosing. If they enter a gaming establishment, they can be arrested for trespassing. The casinos will not pay winnings to the individual during the ban.
Bans can range from one year to one lifetime. All casinos belonging to the American Gaming Association are required to offer self-exclusion as an option. Many Native American casinos will also honor self-exclusion programs, but the rules differ between tribes.
In a third-party exclusion, a family member can request a ban on an addicted person’s behalf. Some casinos require proof that gambling has caused the family severe financial hardship. If the ban is accepted, it will work the same way as a self-exclusion.
Individuals addicted to online gambling can download website-blocking software. These programs prevent people from accessing gambling websites on their computer. Many libraries and businesses use software to prevent visitors from gambling on the premises.
In a Harvard study on Missouri gamblers, most self-excluders benefited from the ban. Yet half the program enrollees experienced a relapse and successfully trespassed into local casinos. The results suggest the self-excluders did not reduce their gambling due to fears of legal action. According to the study, self-excluders saw improvements because they made a firm commitment to change. Other research suggests self-exclusion can motivate people to seek mental health treatment.
- Developing a Gambling Addiction While Hiding Addictive Behaviors: Henry, 43, has been feeling a bit down lately. He used to visit the casino with friends to enjoy an occasional night out. Henry enjoyed his last visit so much that he has begun returning to the casino on his own, spending hours at a time at a single blackjack table. His friends ask why he is suddenly making trips to the casino by himself, but Henry brushes off their concerns. He begins to spend more and more time at the casino, hoping to win money, since when he wins, he feels good. Sometimes, especially after nights of big losses, he lies to his wife about where he has been. One night, Henry dips into his children’s college fund to make up for his gambling losses. He suspects he is losing control and decides to get professional help. In therapy, Henry realizes he is not even enjoying the gambling. He is using gambling to numb his recent symptoms of depression. The therapist helps Henry discover several underlying emotional reasons for his behavior at the casino, many of which he was not even aware. In therapy, Henry learns skills to cope with his impulses to gamble. He continues working with the therapist to overcome his depression.
- Grief Fuels a Gambling Addiction and Risky Behavior: About two years ago, Virginia, 55, lost her husband of 25 years to cancer. She keenly felt the loss of her best friend and biggest support. Two months after the funeral, Virginia's best friend arranged a trip to Las Vegas to cheer her up. Virginia quickly took to the slot machines and found herself feeling better. After the trip, she starts playing online slots for hours at a time. Before long, she is spending thousands of dollars a month on internet slot machines. Virginia stops paying the mortgage and spends nearly all the money from her husband's life insurance policy. When she receives notice that her house is at risk of foreclosure, Virginia realizes she has a problem. She connects with a counselor, who helps her work through her underlying issues of grief. In therapy, Virginia realizes she has been burying her sadness under the "high" that winning gives her. She now attends weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings and shares her recovery story on a regular basis.
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- Curley, B. (2010, March). DSM-V -- Major changes to addictive disease classifications. Recovery Today Online. Retrieved from http://www.recoverytoday.net/articles/143-dsm-v-major-changes-to-addictive-disease-classifications
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