Quitting While You’re Ahead – Gambling Addiction is No Game

Gambling is fun! It can be a relaxing way to connect with family and friends over games, a good theme for fundraising parties, and a good excuse for a trip – to Monaco maybe?  But, for some people, it isn’t entertaining, or fun.  Gambling has a dark side that is often ignored except by the people affected by it.  Current information indicates that 2% or more of adults are problem gamblers, compulsive gamblers, or addicted gamblers.  And the rate is at least twice that for adolescents!  For those people, gambling tears apart families and friendships, causes financial strain and often bankruptcy, and leads to suicide at an alarming rate, much higher than other disorders.

Who is a problem, compulsive, or addicted gambler? These terms are interchangeable, and the current practice is to use the diagnostic criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5).  There are nine characteristics that identify a gambling disorder, four of which must be present to make the diagnosis.  Among them are the inability to cut back or stop gambling, chasing losses by gambling more, preoccupation with gambling, using gambling to calm distress, lying about gambling behaviors, asking others to bail them out of gambling debts, and jeopardizing job or school to continue gambling.   People who display only some of these characteristics are identified as having a gambling disorder.

Men tend to develop gambling problems at a younger age and with more severity than women, but women now make up almost 25% of people with a gambling disorder, and their symptoms tend to worsen faster than with men. Those at risk include those with mood problems, cocaine or alcoholism addiction, and schizophrenia.   And, strangely enough, some medications used for Parkinson disease and restless leg syndrome are associated with the development of gambling problems. Almost 75% of people with a gambling disorder do have other mental health problems, such as major depression, anxiety, PTSD, and dysfunctional patterns of attaching with others in relationships.

Gambling is a serious problem in northeastern Colorado, including Weld County.   It takes the form of bingo, the lottery, fantasy football, office pools, card games, internet gaming, cock fights, dog fights, and casinos. There may even be someone you know who can spends hundreds, even thousands of dollars, and find themselves in serious financial trouble.

However, there IS treatment for people with a gambling disorder, and the success rate is good, especially when compared with other “addictive” disorders. Treatment includes individual and family therapy, strict financial accountability, along with participation in Gamblers Anonymous.  Treatment focuses on addressing the underlying drive to feel better through the frenetic activity of gambling.   Treating a gambling disorder along with other addictive disorders is generally not successful because about 30% of people with a gambling disorder don’t have other addictive disorders, such as alcohol or other substance abuse.  Thus, other programs addressing substance addictions completely miss those people, and other programs don’t address the financial accountability or the underling drive.

To find a gambling disorder program, look for the letters NCGC-I or NCGC-11 after a therapist’s name. This signifies that they have been educated on the dynamics of gambling and have passed national board certification to be a therapist for people with a gambling disorder.  A therapist should ask a few short, simple questions about gambling behavior to start assessing a potential problem. Gambler Anonymous groups are close by in Fort Collins, Longmont, and Denver (coloradoga.org).  There is help—and hope—for those who find themselves unable to stop gambling.

Barbara Florey, LPC, NCGC-I
North Range Behavioral Health

Sources: Colorado Coalition on Gambling
Dr. Nancy Petry, National Council on Problem Gambling

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