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When Does Gambling Become an Addiction?

Nearly six million adults and about a half-million teens are affected by a hidden addiction. In fact, one of the biggest steps in fighting a gambling-related problem is first recognizing that the problem exists. 

“I think a big misconception is that if you gamble, you become a problem gambler,” Dr. Ty Lostutter, President of Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling tells New Day Northwest

As we see with substance abuse problems, those affected by gambling-related problems are often unable to stop, even if it means wiping out savings accounts, accumulating crippling debt, ending personal relationships, and stealing. They also experience withdrawal symptoms and have the highest suicide rate of any addictive disorder.  

“What we’re looking for is not the behavior itself, but how the behavior is impacting the individuals,” Lostutter adds. “It’s a problem when people who are gambling a lot, lose a lot. If it’s a family that’s on a very fixed income and gambles a lot of money away, they will have severe consequences. Despite all those problems, if they are continually gambling, those problems will continue.”

Lostutter also notes that there are a lot of similarities between gambling-related problems, substance use disorder, and process addictions or behavioral addictions. 

“A lot of those similarities are things like the need for more — in this case the need to gamble. If you try to cut back and become irritable, we would call those withdrawal symptoms,” Lostutter says.

Here’s the good news. Not all gambling leads to problem gambling, and clinical studies have shown that those who receive treatment improve, much as we see with other types of addictions such as drug and alcohol abuse.

“(How) we study the behavioral psychology pieces of this are very much like we would do a drug trial — a randomized clinical control trial to either get treatment or not — and follow up with participants over time. The majority of people who get treatment always seem to get better,” notes Lostutter. 
Lostutter then tells New Day Northwest that as part of treatment, patients will learn how to set their own budgets. 

“At some treatment centers, we take money away first and then reintroduce it. They learn how to do it better as they get further into treatment. The idea is to have someone else come and help you with it, kind of manage it, and then over time as you get more confident in your abilities to manage money again, you get to learn those skills that maybe were lacking before.”

Stephanie Tompkins, a substance use disorder professional and clinical supervisor at Alternatives Professional Counseling notes that while these tactics are proving to be successful, treatment needs to include more than just learning how to budget. 

“Treatment is for the individual, but it doesn’t really work just with the individual. You really have to try to work with the whole family. You can’t just fix the individual, you’ve got to fix everything around them, you have to take a holistic approach,” she says.

“You don’t just fix the family, you fix the spirituality, you fix the physical, the mental — it really is the holistic approach when you do the treatment.”  

Treatment Options

It’s vitally important that people struggling with problem gambling receive treatment for their addiction. Many people affected by problem gambling want to quit or control their gambling, but they’re often unable to do so on their own, despite their best efforts.

Here is a list of places that can help: