What is problem gambling?
Problem gambling is not just about losing money. Gambling problems can affect a person’s whole life.
Gambling is a problem when it:
- gets in the way of work, school or other activities
- harms your mental or physical health
- hurts you financially
- damages your reputation
- causes problems with your family or friends.
People who have gambling problems
- Not all people who gamble excessively are alike, nor are the problems they face. People with gambling problems are found in all age groups, income groups, cultures and jobs. Some people develop gambling problems suddenly, others over many years.
- In Ontario, 4.8 per cent of adults (449,000 people) have moderate or severe gambling problems. An additional 9.6 per cent (860,000 people) are classified as “at-risk” for problem gambling.
- Only a small percentage of people who have gambling problems use Ontario’s specialized counselling services.
- According to the CAMH publication The Mental Health and Well-Being of Ontario Students 1991–2007, 4.7 per cent of students (7.5 per cent of males and 1.8 per cent of females) engaged in heavy gambling in 2007.
- Men and women are equally likely to gamble, but men tend to spend more money.
- Problem gambling prevalence rates are higher for people with a history of mental illness or substance use problems.
- A 2001 survey for the Responsible Gambling Council found that one in six Ontario adults report a problem resulting from either their own or another person’s gambling. Families may experience financial difficulty, emotional distress and physical illness.
- According to estimates from the United States, one person in five who experiences problems related to gambling will eventually file for bankruptcy (National Council on Problem Gambling and National Endowment for Financial Education). In a Quebec study, 28 per cent of people with severe gambling problems had declared bankruptcy and one-third had debts between $75,000 and $150,000. A further 35 per cent were about to declare bankruptcy.
- Twenty-one Ontario credit counselling offices surveyed by CAMH in 2002 indicated that, on average, 14 per cent of their clients had financial problems related to gambling. The true number is likely higher, because gambling problems are typically under-reported.
What are the signs of problem gambling?
Gambling problems share many similarities with other addictive disorders. However, there are no visible signs or physical changes that will indicate a gambling problem.
Instead, there are common behavioural, emotional, financial and health signs.
- stops doing things he or she previously enjoyed
- misses family events
- changes patterns of sleep, eating or sex
- ignores self-care, work, school or family tasks
- has conflicts with other people over money
- uses alcohol or other drugs more often
- leaves children alone, seems less concerned about who looks after them, neglects their basic care
- thinks about gambling all the time
- is less willing to spend money on things other than gambling
- cheats or steals to get the money to gamble or pay debts
- has legal problems related to gambling
- is often late for work or school
- organizes staff pools
- is gone for long, unexplained periods of time
- neglects personal responsibilities.
- withdraws from family and friends
- seems far away or anxious, or has difficulty paying attention
- has mood swings and sudden outbursts of anger
- complains of boredom or restlessness
- seems depressed or suicidal.
- frequently borrows money or asks for salary advances
- takes a second job without a change in finances
- cashes in savings accounts, RRSPs or insurance plans
- alternates between being broke and flashing money.
Family members complain that valuables and appliances are disappearing, or money is missing from a bank account or wallet.
The individual complains of stress-related health problems, such as:
- stomach and bowel problems
- difficulty sleeping
- overeating, or loss of appetite.
What are the risk factors for developing a gambling problem?
There are many reasons why a gambling problem may develop. For example, some people develop problems when they try to win back money they have lost, or because they like to be “in the action.” Others have many life stresses and consider gambling a welcome relief.
Various risk factors can contribute to the development of gambling problems or make it more difficult to stop. People are more at risk if they:
- have an early big win (leading to false expectation of future wins)
- have easy access to their preferred form of gambling
- hold mistaken beliefs about the odds of winning
- do not take steps to monitor gambling wins and losses
- have had a recent loss or change, such as divorce, job loss, retirement or death of a loved one
- often feel bored or lonely, or have a history of risk taking or impulsive behaviour
- have financial problems
- have few interests or hobbies, or feel their lives lack direction
- have a history of mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety
- have been abused or traumatized
- have a parent who also has (or has had) problems with gambling
- have (or have had) problems with alcohol or other drugs, gambling or overspending
- tie their self-esteem to gambling wins or losses.
The more factors that apply, the more likely a person is to develop a gambling problem.
Gambling problems occur along a continuum. These are not discrete categories but possible points along a range of involvement, from not gambling at all to pathological gambling:
- No gambling: Some people never gamble.
- Casual social gambling: Most people gamble casually, buying the occasional raffle or lottery ticket or occasionally visiting a casino for entertainment.
- Serious social gambling: These people play regularly. It is their main form of entertainment, but it does not come before family and work.
- Harmful involvement: These people are experiencing difficulties in their personal, work and social relationships.
- Pathological gambling: For a small but significant number of people, gambling seriously harms all aspects of their lives. People with gambling problems this severe are unable to control the urge to gamble, despite the harm it causes. These people are more likely to use gambling to escape from problems and to get relief from anxiety.
What is the difference between low-risk and harmful gambling?
Not all gambling is a problem. Gambling may be low risk or it may be harmful.
Low-risk gambling means you:
- limit how much time and money you spend gambling
- accept your losses, and don’t try to win them back
- enjoy winning, but know it happened by chance
- balance gambling with other fun activities
- don’t gamble to earn money or pay debts
- don’t gamble when your judgment is impaired by alcohol or other drugs
- never borrow money or use personal investments or family savings to gamble
- don’t gamble to escape from your problems or feelings
- don’t hurt your job, health, finances, reputation or family through your gambling.
Harmful gambling means you have started to:
- lie about your gambling or keep it a secret
- lose track of time and play for longer than you meant to
- feel depressed or angry after gambling
- spend more money than you planned, or more than you can afford
- ignore work and family responsibilities because of gambling
- borrow money or use household money to gamble
- “chase your losses” to try to win back your money
- believe that gambling will pay off in the end
- see gambling as the most important thing in your life
- use gambling to cope with your problems or to avoid things
- have conflicts with family and friends over gambling
- ignore your physical and emotional health because of gambling.
Adapted from problemgambling.ca © 2010 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health