Gambling Problems: How to Tell If You or Someone You Know is Afflicted

May 10

If you know how to listen to your instincts, it will rarely lead you astray. This is why mentors often say you need to “listen to your heart” or “follow your gut”. So when you start feeling that something’s not quite right with someone you know, do your best to address that feeling. It may be something that’s almost impossible to pinpoint, but if it’s gnawing at you even when you don’t know the details, it may well be worth discovering.

One such problem that can be difficult to identify is addiction to gambling. Unlike substance abuse, gambling addiction isn’t likely to come with a certain look in the eyes or an unhealthy pallor. But that doesn’t mean there are no signs. You simply need to know what to look for.

For one thing, how do you differentiate someone who simply enjoys gambling on a regular basis from someone who has a gambling problem? There are millions of people who gamble each day, and most of these people are perfectly able to manage their gambling habit. The first thing you need to do if you want to know for sure whether someone you know has a gambling addiction or not is to learn what constitutes a gambling problem as opposed to gambling as a healthy form of recreation.

What is Recreational Gambling?

Buying a lottery ticket one a week, betting on a horse once a month, playing a slot machine for an hour each week are all examples of recreational gambling. It is something you do for fun or to pass the time. You have no difficulty moving on to non-betting activities as soon as the draw is done, the race is over, or the hour is up.

What is Problem Gambling?

If you’re losing track of time while gambling, spending more money than you budgeted for, and even using money that has been set aside for necessities just so you can place a bet, then you have a problem. It is important to note that a gambling addiction isn’t something that happens overnight. It usually starts out small, and then grows progressively worse unless or until it is treated. In this case, it is quite similar to drug addiction.

A minor gambling problem, one that has just started to manifest, might cause small disruptions in a person’s life from time to time, such as not being able to pay rent for a month. A major gambling problem completely throws a wrench in that person’s life, perhaps even causing him to do something illegal such as stealing just to support the habit.

Understandably, illegal activity isn’t something you’d want a friend or family member to be involved in. This is why it’s important to identify a gambling addiction as early as possible, when the person involved hasn’t done anything drastic yet and the habit will still be a bit easier to manage.

Types of Problem Gamblers

What you may not be aware of is that problem gamblers are categorized into two broad types—the action gambler and the escape gambler. It may be useful to understand what characterises these problem gambler types. Better understanding might make it easier for you to determine whether you family or friend indeed has a problem or not, and if so, how you can best help them turn their life around.

Action gamblers are almost always men. These are the kinds of men who have been gambling ever since they were teenagers. They typically prefer skill games such as poker, sports betting, horse racing, dog racing, craps, and maybe even car racing. They are driven by their own belief that they are a lot smarter and better than the system. They hold the firm belief that their skill will ensure that they will always beat the odds.

On the opposite side of the table are the escape gamblers. These gamblers typically learned to gamble later in life. Their entry into the world of gambling most likely started with curiosity and an innocent invitation. And in all likelihood, the invitation came at just the right moment, when the person had a problem that he or she wanted to forget, even for a few hours. It doesn’t matter what that problem was—it can be something as simple as stress at work, or a life-changing event such as divorce—what matters is that the person wanted to escape it for a bit of time.

Most escape gamblers are women, but there is also a good number of men who fall into escape gambling. The gambler’s gender is really of no consequence. The main thing is that anyone who resorts to gambling to temporarily escape their reality is a problem gambler. The kind of games this type of gambler usually prefers are those that bring them into an almost hypnotic state of mind. Prime examples are bingo, video poker, the lottery, and slot machines.

The Signs

Here are the things you need to look out for if you want to know for sure whether someone you know has developed a gambling problem:

1. More gambling time

If you know the person enough to know that he/she plays the lottery or bets on horses regularly, then you will likely notice when that person’s gambling time increases. Instead of the weekly lottery, it becomes a daily lottery. And maybe horse betting is now done weekly instead of once a month. There is definitely reason for concern if a person is spending more and more time gambling.

You may also notice the person being late for work or family events, or worse, completely missing occasions such as birthdays and school events. Choosing family vacation venues where there is gambling could also possibly point to a budding problem. Any sign that indicates time with family and friends becoming less and less should be cause for concern.

2. Growing debts

Everyone has debts. That is just one of the facts of life. But most people are able to manage their debts well enough. Some are even very good at paying off major debts before incurring another. But some people just don’t know how to manage their finances, and they fall into the debt trap. What sets them apart from those who fell neck-deep into debt because of gambling is that they’re not nearly as defensive.

When a person without a gambling problem runs into financial problems involving debt, they usually seek help. A person with a gambling problem, on the other hand, is usually defensive or secretive where money matters are concerned. A problem gambler also has a tendency to borrow money from family and friends without really giving a good reason for the need to borrow.

3. Winning as a constant topic

People with a gambling problem are obsessed with wins. To be specific, they are hung up on “the big win”. They will always boast about the times when they took home a huge payout, but you will never hear them talk about the times when they lost a considerable amount of money. Try to ask them about losses, and they will likely shrug it off and go right back to talking about their wins.

It is also quite common for problem gamblers to pin all their hopes on that huge jackpot. You might hear them talk about how they will finally be able to pay off all their debts if they win the jackpot in a particular game. Or perhaps they will promise a loved one that they will have a grand vacation when he gets his million-dollar win. The problem gambler will cling to the belief that the big win is the solution to all his problems.

4. Mood swings

Check how a gambler acts when he’s on a winning streak. While it is normal for someone who has won a significant amount of money to feel good about it, it may be a red flag if the person is in unusually high spirits and is still crowing about the victory a couple of days after the fact.

Inversely, if a person who regularly gambles for recreational purposes misses a gambling day for whatever reason, it shouldn’t be that big a deal. If the gambler becomes restless, bad-tempered, or withdrawn as a result of missing gambling day, then it definitely will be a good idea for you to take a closer look into the situation. You might already have a serious problem on your hands.

5. Evasion or outright lies

If you’ve noticed that a family or friend has been missing more and more work days, coming home late more and more nights, or staying on the computer for increasingly longer periods of time, it is understandable that you would wonder and start asking questions. A problem gambler would typically refuse to even acknowledge the change in their behavior, or if they do acknowledge it, they may refuse to explain it.

If you keep pressing for answers, a problem gambler would typically lie about his actions or his whereabouts. If you manage to make him admit to a gambling problem, it is likely that he will promise to stop or cut back, but don’t expect that to happen immediately. In fact, it may never happen at all, unless there is professional intervention.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that there is hope for problem gamblers. Given proper treatment and adequate support, they can turn themselves around and start living healthy lives. However, you need to understand that just as you did not cause their addiction to gambling, you also cannot make the addiction go away. What you can do to begin with is talk to them so you can convince them to seek proper treatment.

Here are a few tips on how to approach a family or friend who may need help in letting go of a gambling addiction:

1. Find a quiet place where the two of you can talk in private, without interruptions and distractions.

2. Tell them about your observations. Be specific in pointing out behaviors that are troubling you. State the day of the week, time, and other details.

3. Be matter-of-fact when you enumerate the troubling behaviors. Be careful not to sound accusing or judgmental. The message should be that you are worried about how gambling is affecting his life, not that you are judging his decision to gamble.

4. Tell them specifically how their gambling is affecting you. For example, you could mention a time when he promised to accompany you to an event, but he forgot because he was out gambling. Tell him you felt hurt when that happened. If you know of incidences where other people within his circle were also negatively impacted by his gambling, mention those incidences as well.

5. Ask him how you can help him overcome this problem. Offer to help him find a counseling service, to call the counseling service for him, or to accompany him to his first appointment.

Perhaps the most important tip is this: Don’t. Push. It. Remember that you cannot solve your friend’s problem for him. The problem gambler has to be ready and willing to seek help in order to effectively recover from a gambling addiction. Unless he’s ready, no amount of talking will make a difference.

If you’re fortunate enough to find the perfect timing, and you were able to talk to your friend just when he was ready to seek help, then be sure to offer your full support. And it will also help for you to rally family and friends to offer extra support. You may offer support simply by being there to listen when your friend needs to share about his struggles, or you could encourage him by acknowledging every small step he takes towards turning his life around.

Bear in mind that the struggle to get out of the pit you fall into when you suffer from gambling addiction is a long and difficult one. Your friend may not succeed on the first try; don’t expect him to. Keep encouraging and supporting him, and be with him as he completes his journey.