Problem Gambling - The Hidden Addiction

March is Problem Gambling Awareness month, a disorder that expert Peter Bradley, certified addictions counselor for UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial, said can easily go unnoticed and untreated. “You can’t necessarily smell it on a person or see their bloodshot eyes,” Bradley said. But as gambling has become normalized and more accessible in our society, gambling addictions have become more prevalent.

According to the most recent survey by the National Council on Problem Gambling, the number of people seeking treatment for this addiction rose 25 percent in 2012, which Bradley said has a mostly to do with accessibility to gambling and betting.

Gambling is defined as risking something of value in the hope of obtaining something of greater value. Someone without a gambling addiction can set limits, but someone struggling with an addiction doesn’t know when to stop, Bradley said. “Like a drug addiction, people who have a gambling addiction chase wins like chasing a high. Dopamine levels rise like someone addicted to cocaine.” 

Most gambling addictions can be identified through signs like dishonest practices, tardiness, debt, loss of work, strained relationships, panic, blaming and illegal acts. It’s similar to other addictions in that people become impaired in major life functioning areas.

“Responsible, productive members of society can get caught in gambling,” Bradley said. “Even churches have bingo night.”

Bradley said three to five people out of every 100 struggle with a gambling problem, most between the ages of 26 and 55, but that number could be higher. “We don’t see a lot of people with the disorder because people don’t seek treatment or don’t think help is available,” Bradley said.

When someone comes in for treatment, it often uncovers deeper emotional or physiological problems like depression, anxiety, substance abuse or trauma that need to be treated. Gambling became a way to find escape and release from those underlying problems.

“When they come to us for help, they’re oftentimes in dire straits,” Bradley said. He said unlike an alcohol or drug addiction, a person could lose his or her entire life’s savings in a single night. “We’re mindful of that, and issues like distrust between family, suicidal thoughts or intentions, job troubles, poor health, financial struggles…a lot of issues come into play.”

Bradley said treatment includes therapy, and convincing an addict to see that the odds are against them. “We figure out what the person’s risky situations or triggers are and develop a relapse plan,” he said. “Sometimes they’re office pools, Super Bowl parties and basketball brackets. Betting is such a big part of our culture.”

He said staff will often connect patients with money management experts, help them resolve relationship issues and refer them to Gambler Anonymous meetings.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call UChicago Ingalls Memorial addiction recovery center at 708-915-4090. All behavioral health assessments, offered 24 hours a day, are free. You can also call the National Problem Gambling Help Line at 1-800-522-4700.