Gambling involves wagering something of value, such as money or valuables, on a random event that may have an uncertain outcome. It is a common pastime and a large international commercial activity. Gambling also can involve betting on sports events, games of chance, or collecting game pieces (such as those used in the board game Monopoly or collectible cards such as Magic: The Gathering). It can also include activities in which a player wagers other players’ collected game pieces (e.g., marbles or pogs).
Despite the ubiquity of gambling and its social acceptance, there are some individuals who become preoccupied with gambling to the point that it becomes a serious problem. This disorder is referred to as pathological gambling (PG), and about 0.4-1.6% of Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for it. Symptoms of PG can start during adolescence or young adulthood and persist for several years. Men tend to develop PG at a faster rate and at a younger age than women.
The onset and development of PG is complicated and may be influenced by factors such as genetics, childhood trauma, social inequalities, and the availability of financial opportunities. People with PG often lie to family members, therapists, and employers in order to conceal their gambling behavior and the extent of their involvement in the activity. They may engage in illegal activities, such as forgery, fraud, or theft, to finance their gambling. Those with a PG diagnosis are likely to experience significant negative consequences as a result of their addiction, such as lost employment, educational opportunities, and relationships.
There are many treatments available to help people overcome their compulsion to gamble. Behavioral therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy, can be useful in helping people change unhealthy gambling behaviors and thoughts. There are also several types of psychotherapy that can be used to treat a person’s underlying mood disorders, which may trigger or make worse compulsive gambling behaviors.
If you have a loved one who suffers from a gambling problem, get help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support; ask a trusted friend or counselor, or attend a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. Try to find healthier ways to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, or practicing relaxation techniques. If you can’t stop your loved one from gambling, consider taking control of his or her finances and establishing credit-management boundaries. Seek treatment for any underlying mood disorders that are contributing to the problem, such as depression or anxiety.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved medications to treat gambling disorder, there are effective treatment methods, such as psychotherapy and self-help groups for families of problem gamblers (Gamblers Anonymous). Learn more about the different types of therapy for this condition here. There are also residential and inpatient treatment programs for people with a severe gambling disorder who are unable to manage their behavior without around-the-clock support. These programs are typically more costly than outpatient treatment options.