Understanding Gambling Disorders

Gambling is an activity where a person risks money or other valuables on an event with an uncertain outcome. The result can be decided by randomness, for example the roll of a dice, the spin of a roulette wheel or the outcome of a horse race. Skill can be used in gambling but this is not central to the activity – for example knowledge of playing strategies may improve the chances of winning a card game, or betting on football games can reduce the risk of losing by using techniques such as ‘odds matching’.

Some people are more prone to problem gambling than others, but any form of gambling can have a negative impact on someone’s life. It can affect their physical and mental health, impact on family relationships and work performance, get them into debt and lead to legal action or homelessness.

The national social cost of problem gambling is estimated at $7 billion per year, including criminal justice and healthcare costs, and lost wages. However, many individuals who gamble do so responsibly and the risk of developing a gambling disorder is low for most.

For most people who gamble, it is a form of entertainment that they enjoy. But for some, it becomes an addictive behaviour that takes over their lives and damages relationships, career and personal financial situation. Problem gambling can also cause stress, depression and suicide.

People who have a gambling disorder have a lack of control over their gambling, often because of an underlying mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol. A number of other factors can also contribute to problematic gambling, such as sensation-and novelty-seeking and arousal, impaired judgment, cognitive distortions, impulsivity and a sense of moral turpitude.

It is important to understand why some people develop a gambling addiction so that we can support them and prevent it from progressing. For example, it is common for people to develop a gambling problem because of other problems they are experiencing in their lives such as relationship difficulties, anxiety or financial pressures. This is often referred to as a ‘cycle of problem gambling’ and it can be hard for people who have this pattern to break out of it.

Despite the fact that there is a lack of an agreed nomenclature for gambling disorders, researchers, psychiatrists and other treatment care clinicians tend to frame questions about gambling-related problems differently, depending on their disciplinary training and world views. This creates confusion about what is being discussed and can impede the development of effective interventions. The nomenclature should be broad enough to include a range of perspectives.