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Gambling Addiction: Financial Woe or Emotional Issue? - Drug Rehab and Alcohol Treatment

Gambling Addiction: Financial Woe or Emotional Issue?


A New York Times Health blog post from mid-October says that compulsive gambling is on the rise. According to Dr. Timothy Fong, an addiction expert that NYT interviewed, “for about 2 percent of the population, they have this psychiatric disorder called gambling addiction that can severely impact their lives in permanently harmful ways.”


UCLA has a gambling studies program, of which Dr. Fong helped develop, that looks at treating compulsive gambling. Their program does research on problem gambling and offers free treatment for people that struggle with a gambling addiction.


Timeline of Problem Gambling/Gambling Addiction


gambling addiction

The website also has an amazing timeline that chronicles the progression of gambling addiction in California. Here are a few interesting lines from the timeline:


  • 1972 – First inpatient treatment program for gamblers, started by Robert Custer at Brecksville (Ohio) Veterans Administration.
  • 1980 – Pathological (compulsive) gambling first recognized as a mental disorder by its inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III).
  • 1984 – California state lottery approved, after being placed on the ballot by initiative and enacted by constitutional amendment.
  • 1996 – California the sixth largest gambling state, behind Nevada, New Jersey, Mississippi, Illinois and Louisiana. But the only one not to have casino gambling. Predominant form of legal gambling in California is card clubs, followed by horse racing and the lottery.
  • 2003 – Assembly Bill 673 amends the Welfare and Institutions Code to fund an Office of Problem and Pathological Gambling within the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.


As noted in the last part of the UCLA gambling addiction timeline, in 2003, the state of California’s Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs created an entire branch devoted to gambling addiction or what is referred to as “problem gambling”.


Definition of “Problem Gambling”


The National Council on Problem Gambling describes the term "Problem Gambling" as including, but is not limited to, “the condition known as "Pathological", or "Compulsive" Gambling, a progressive addiction characterized by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, "chasing" losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences.” 


Is gambling addiction based in finances or emotions?


As you can see above, this definition fits with the definition of drug addiction in terms of a person “compulsively seeking and using, despite harmful consequences.” One of the biggest “harmful consequences” that gambling addiction causes is financial hardship. However, gambling addiction is not because of financial troubles.


The NCPG notes that, “Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences. If you pay all of a problem gambler's debts, the person will still be a problem gambler. The real problem is that they have an uncontrollable obsession with gambling.”


gambling addiction


Gambling Addiction Signs & Symptoms


Gambling addiction is often hard to detect because many of the signs and symptoms are not as apparent as drug addiction or alcoholism. According to California’s department website, there are several indicators that a person may have a gambling addiction.

*The three symptoms listed below are taken from the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Problems website.



Problem gamblers believe there are only three possible outcomes for each gambling session:


 - WIN- I’m hot so let’s see how much we can win tonight.

 - LOSE- Just a few good hands and I can get it all back.

 - BREAK EVEN- No serious gambler ever plays to break even.


Notice that none of the three outcomes listed mention entertainment, having a good time, or setting self-imposed limits.




"Chasing", in reference to gambling, means continuing to gamble in an effort to win back money already lost. No thought is given to the "fun of gambling". Instead, "chasing" signals a desperate attempt by all problem gamblers, new and old, to win at all cost.



Most members of Gambler’s Anonymous can readily recall an “early big win” in their gambling careers. Normal gamblers recognize that the chance of winning a large jackpot is part of what makes gambling so much fun. Problem gamblers, on the other hand, are misled by unrealistic thinking, certain in their belief that big wins will come to them again, easily and often.

Researchers cannot predict with certainty who will become problem gamblers. Most agree, however, that the “early big win” is a commonality of nearly all abnormal gambling.


If you think you may have a problem with gambling, take this “Gambler’s Self-Assessment” quiz.

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