Gambling addiction

Compulsive gambling starts out as recreational and slowly progresses to the point where it has serious consequences for both the gambler and their family. Just as with any other addiction, compulsive gambling is threefold in nature: mental, physical and spiritual, with its main symptom being that of denial and its major characteristic loss of control.

Availability and accessibility determine the number of people that will gamble. The greater the number of facilities, the greater the number of people who participate and therefore the greater number of people who are at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers.

Forms of gambling that cause problems
The two forms of gambling that cause problems and lead to loss of control are:

  • The opportunity to place a single large bet e.g. horse racing or casino.
  • The opportunity to place frequent small bets over relatively short periods e.g. fruit machines, where the interval between bets may be less than 20 seconds.

Characteristics of compulsive gambling:

  • Preoccupation: an overriding passion that dominates all aspects of life. The preoccupation transforms the gambler into a withdrawn and moody person.
  • Loss of control: not being able to stop once he/she has started.
  • Continuing despite the negative consequences.

Predictors of compulsive gambling:

  • The compulsion to chase losses.
  • Repeated attempts to stop.
  • Gambling in response to negative emotions such as stress and depression.

Phases of compulsive gambling:

  • Winning
  • Losing
  • Desperation

About 75% of compulsive gamblers report that they had a large win early in their gambling. This winning leads to fantasies about winning more and an attitude that gambling is a quick and easy way of earning additional income.

The losing phase is when the gambler unfortunately loses more than they can afford and then attempts to recover by "chasing losses" in the hope of winning back the money.

The desperation phase is when the gambler gets into the vicious cycle of occasionally winning, chasing losses and then suffering more losses. Irrational gambling begins, as does the downward spiral. The size and frequency of bets increase and bigger debts are accumulated until rock bottom is reached.

Who is at risk?

  • Research shows that people on low incomes and unemployed people are vulnerable. In this income category, problems emerge at a much earlier stage.
  • Young men between 16-30 playing fruit and slot machines and betting on horses are more at risk than their contemporaries purchasing lottery tickets.
  • Bingo, scratch cards and machines have more appeal for older women.
  • Impulsive people, which brings us back to availability and accessibility.

Effects on problem gamblers:

In general, gambling produces social and economic costs, poverty, starvation, family disintegration and criminal behaviour. The majority of people who gamble to excess develop psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety. Many of these people turn to alcohol and drugs as a means of temporarily escaping.

The physical and emotional health of the compulsive gambler starts to deteriorate as a result of constant preoccupation with financial problems. They become moody and irritable and often start arguments in order to leave the house and gamble. Research shows that 75% of compulsive gamblers suffer from symptoms of major depression. The depression, coupled with an inability to find a solution, the fear of being discovered by their spouse, employer or police, exacerbated by alcohol abuse, can lead to ideas of suicide. Up to 60% of compulsive gamblers think about suicide and about 20% actually attempt it. Other feelings experienced are anxiety, anger, muscular tension, headaches, high blood pressure and fatigue.

The effects on employment are second only to the effects on the gambler’s family. Gamblers cannot function properly at their jobs, there is reduced productivity, absenteeism, lost opportunities for promotion, lack of initiative, attempts to borrow money from colleagues. Lying and deceit become a way of life.

Other behaviour includes:

  • Spending savings.
  • Cashing in holiday/sick pay allowance.
  • Drawing advances from credit card accounts.
  • Taking high interest loans.
  • Pawning jewellery and household goods.
  • Accessing other family members’ bank accounts.
  • Engaging in criminal activities.

How gambling impacts on the family:
The financial difficulties cause strain and friction. Partners often feel betrayed and angry, which in turn leads to loss of trust. There is confusion, worry, despair and fear. Arguments erupt and people cease to communicate. Lack of funds for family activities, abusive behaviour, hopelessness and helplessness often lead to separation and divorce. The partner suffers similar physical symptoms and often becomes sicker than the gambler. In this environment, children suffer neglect and fear. No wonder addiction is called a family illness.

We believe that the only effective treatment is absolute abstinence. This means that the compulsive gambler needs to abstain from all games of chance, especially those involving money, even if the games did not form part of their gambling or, for whatever reason, they did not appeal to the gambler in the past.

From Stepping Stones Addiction Centre, Kommetjie


Thank you for participating