Compulsive Gambling: Myths and Facts
Have you ever attempted to speak with a gambler about his or her gambling patterns? Chances are that the person overrode any concerns you might have broached about their behaviour by saying that they couldn’t possibly become addicted because they don’t gamble regularly, they don’t lose more than a few hundred dollars at a time, and they always act responsibly. This is the moment when you take a deep breath and carefully help them de-bunk the following myths about gambling addiction.
Myth: “True problem gamblers gamble every day.”
Fact: It’s not the precise frequency of the gambling that determines the addiction; some pathological gamblers may only hit the tables once a month. Rather, it is the consequences – emotional, financial, and relational – which indicate an addiction.
Myth: “Gambling is only an issue when the money is all gone.”
Fact: The amount of money a gambler wins or loses does not determine the addiction. Usually gamblers incur enough debt that the financial consequences begin to impact on their lives, but this is not always the case. Some gamblers may win big, and then lose it all the next week.
Myth: “One can’t become addicted to something like gambling.”
Fact: The “rush” that gamblers get – that sense of euphoria that impels the gambler to keep going with it – involves the same changes in brain chemistry that alcoholics and drug addicts experience. That is, it takes more and more of the behaviour to produce the same “high”, thus creating the cravings and accompanying withdrawal symptoms if there is no access to gambling. More gambling behaviour, however, requires more money to fuel it, necessitating the increasingly larger risks taken (including illegal acts) to produce the funds to continue. When the compulsion to continue becomes overwhelming, the person is addicted, even though they may strenuously deny that they have a problem.
Myth: “Pathological gambling is really just a financial issue.”
Fact: The problem is the obsession. Compulsive gambling is an emotional problem with financial consequences. Even if someone pays off the gambler’s debts, he or she will still be a person with an uncontrolled compulsion.
Myth: “Only irresponsible people have a problem with gambling.”
Fact: There is a widespread misconception that people suffering from addictions are weak-willed, lazy, or “ne’er do well” types. The truth is that anyone can become addicted to gambling. Once the compulsion to gamble takes over, however, many are the people who engage in irresponsible or illegal behaviours in order to support the obsession.
Myth: “Gamblers are criminals.”
Fact: Some gamblers do resort to criminal means, such as robbery, to support their habit, but that is not always the case. It is often because gambler feels a loss of control that he or she is driven to engage in such behaviours.
Myth: “A person with a gambling problem will bet on anything.”
Fact: Gamblers usually have their preferred form of wagering. Someone who loves pokies, for example, may not go anywhere near the racetrack.
Myth: “As long as the gambler can afford it, gambling is not really a problem.”
Fact: Gambling interferes with all aspects of the person’s life, not just the financial slice. Just because the person still has money to burn does not mean that their gambling is not causing problems with relationships, work, or self-esteem. It is the behaviour of gambling that is the main problem, not the financial consequences.
Myth: “To help a problem gambler break the addiction we would have to pay off all their debts.”
Fact: NO! Bailing the gambler out might just be enabling their behaviour to continue. Of course, gamblers need to address the issue of debt and prioritise sorting out their finances, but the most important task is to end the obsession that is compelling the person to gamble; breaking the addiction is about getting the person help.
Myth: “We would easily be able to recognise it if a person were engaged in problem gambling.”
Fact: The heroin addict may have needle marks. The alcoholic may leave empty bottles lying around, or have alcoholic breath. There are few readily observable symptoms of compulsive gambling, especially if the person is doing online gambling, which is easy to hide (adapted from Gambling Addictions, 2009).