The gambling industry continues to grow in Canada. Over the past few decades, progressive legislation has allowed legal gambling operations to explode into a multi-billion dollar industry employing thousands of employees coast to coast. For many, gambling is a safe, fun and occasional recreational activity. Unfortunately, for a portion of the population, gambling is now a very serious problem. Estimates are between 1 and 3 percent of the population has a gambling addiction. In Canada, that’s about 500,000 people.
There is no simple criteria to define a gambling problem. It usually involves loss of considerable money. It can also affect relationships, health, employment and even lead to criminality. Generally, if you or someone you know seems to have a problem, it is important to seek help. There are many free counselling services available throughout Canada. Online resources are also available. Ultimately, a problem gambler will usually encounter severe consequences before finally seeking help and making necessary changes. Ideally, some intervention can prevent irreparable consequences.
As a therapist I continue to study gambling addictions. It is a difficult problem because there are enormous economic benefits as well as serious social problems. Now with access to online gambling, a vulnerable person can find easy ways to learn the games and gradually build an addiction. A problem gambler can find a game anywhere and anytime from the convenience of their smartphone or laptop.
What causes the addiction?
Three main criteria are necessary to form a serious gambling problem.
- Some lurking sense of inadequacy in the form of boredom, lack of opportunity, inferiority, not enough money or glamour. Little joy, hollow relationships, insignificance or diminished personal power.
- A dim sense of purpose or meaning in life. Without a clear and congruent purpose in life, the gambler lacks the secure footing needed to brace up when the going gets tough.
- Access to a game of chance.
A vulnerable person will quickly feel the thrill of wagering. Each bet elevates a temporary jolt of dopamine (an important neurotransmitter). The dopamine creates a feeling of hope and motivation to act. This reinforces more betting and the cycle continues. Eventually the person craves and even depends on the thrill and this is the basis of the addiction. Strangely, the constant hits of dopamine occur regardless of the winning or losing activity. It is the possibility of winning that seems to generate the rush.
How to manage a problem addiction?
A gambling addiction can be treated and managed. There are tons of resources, information and even counselling hotlines available for free – online, by phone or in person at your community centres. It’s tough for a person to see their own problem but this is part of the recovery process. Until then, gentle interventions by loved ones, employers, colleagues, even the police can help. Consequences need to be noted and accepted.
For the problem gambler there are a few things that can be done to contain the problem.
- The gambler should avoid any activity related to gambling. Abstinence is recommended during the early stages of recovery.
- Therapy and counselling can be explored to help improve a healthy sense of purpose and meaning.
- Learn cognitive behaviour skills:
- Breathing and other physical interventions
- Pros and Cons – future paced
- Connect with one hierarchy of values – HOV
- Some medicines can help dampen the dopamine swings. Consult your physician for options.
- A supportive environment should be made to surround the sufferer. Caring people, enriching activities, healthy food, regular sleep routines, exercise. Structured pampering during recovery is helpful when breaking the old pattern and exploring new possibilities.
- Financial responsibilities may need to be supervised or removed from the gambler while they are in early recovery.
While gambling can destroy a gamblers life. The collateral damage is often even greater. Especially for the loved ones left to pick up the pieces after the money is lost. Learning how to support a recovering addict is compounded by one’s own need to survive and cope. Sometimes it’s necessary to distance oneself from the gambler and ultimately, finding ways to move on or start over is an unfortunate reality.
Here are some thoughts for someone living with a problem gambler:
- Seek legal advice. Can titles and assets be secured in order to protect them from the gamblers reach.
- Get counselling. Your health and well-being is essential. Life with a gambler can involve secrets, distrust, disappointment, resentment, abandonment, mysterious creditors and even criminals. Counselling can help you put this in perspective.
- Join a support group. Hearing the stories of others who are married or related to gamblers is comforting. Just knowing you are not alone can be helpful.
- Define boundaries and expectations. You care but there has to be limitations.