Mental Health

Gambling addiction is an illness, not a financial problem. It starts out as a recreational activity and progresses to a compulsive behaviour.


  • Gambling addiction is an illness, not a financial problem.
  • It starts out as a recreational activity and progresses to a compulsive behaviour, which becomes the main focus of a gambler's life.
  • Compulsive gambling has mental, physical and spiritual manifestations and consequences.
  • The main symptom of this addiction is denial and the major characteristics are loss of control, preoccupation, chasing the losses and continuing despite negative consequences.
  • Anxiety and depression, low self-esteem and immaturity often underlie this addiction. However, the person has to stop gambling first before they can be helped with any other issues.
  • Gambling addiction has a devastating effect on family life and relationships.
  • Not all gamblers are gambling addicts, such as not all drinkers are alcoholics.
  • Total avoidance of betting and all games of chance as well as therapy are called for to address this addiction.


Compulsive gambling is a progressive illness, which starts out as a recreational activity and ends up being destructive to both the gambler and his/her families. Compulsive gambling has mental, physical and spiritual consequences. The main symptom of this addiction is denial and the major characteristic is loss of control. There is also a tendency to take bigger and bigger risks as time goes by.

Like alcoholism, it is an illness, which cannot be cured, but which can definitely be arrested. One of the main symptoms of gambling addiction is that it becomes an overriding passion that permeates all aspects of the gambler's life. Inability to stop gambling and continuing to gamble despite negative consequences are also characteristics of gambling addiction.

Winning, losing and desperation are the three phases of compulsive gambling. There are both social and economic costs involved when someone is addicted to gambling. These include poverty, starvation, family disintegration and criminal behaviour. People who gamble to excess often suffer from feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as muscular tension, fatigue, headaches and high blood pressure.

Employees who have a gambling addiction also do not perform well at work as they are preoccupied with the next bet, money problems, where to get money, etc. Engaging in criminal activities in order to fund the gambling habit becomes a reality for many gambling addicts.

Who is at risk?

Research has shown that gambling addiction seems to increase with availability and accessibility. People who are on low incomes or unemployed are vulnerable to gambling addiction. People who are thrill-seekers and who act impulsively are also at risk. Young men between 16 and 30 playing fruit and slot machines as well as betting on horses are more at risk for becoming gambling addicts. Older women tend to go more for scratch cards, and bingo, as well as slot machines.

Gambling addiction is something that can happen to anybody.


There is no single cause of gambling addiction – one is either predisposed to it or not. However, there appears to be a genetic component as people with any addiction history in their families are at increased risk of developing this problem.

Gamblers Anonymous provides some insight, in that three qualities are isolated that seem to be inherently present in gambling addicts: an inability and unwillingness to accept reality, emotional insecurity and immaturity, which translates into an unwillingness to grow up and accept responsibility. There is also evidence to support the fact that many gamblers subconsciously want to lose because they want to punish themselves.


Compulsive gambling usually begins in early adolescence in males and at a later age for females. Some people are fascinated from the time of their initial exposure, but for others the process is more gradual, until they suddenly have a big win, or there is some other stressor bringing on a period of compulsive gambling. Usually, people who go on to become gambling addicts, have a big win early on in their gambling experiences.

Gamblers Anonymous defines gambling as follows: Any betting or wagering, for self or others, whether for money or not, no matter how slight or insignificant, where the outcome is uncertain or depends upon chance or 'skill' constitutes gambling.

Social gambling and professional gambling should not be confused with gambling addiction. In the former, gambling usually takes place as a social activity for a brief period of time and losses are predetermined and within certain limits. Professional gamblers tend not to take big risks and are often very disciplined. Risks are often also split between a number of people as are winnings. Gambling addicts have a tendency to gamble by themselves and to gamble until they have nothing left.

As time goes by, gambling addicts tend to bet larger and larger amounts, take greater and greater chances, gamble more frequently and become progressively more and more obsessed with gambling and getting money with which to gamble. Periods of stress or depression tend to exacerbate gambling activity. The process of winning, then losing, followed by desperation, is a known cycle in the world of the gambling addict.

Signs and symptoms

Depression, and a deterioration of physical and emotional health are general signs and symptoms of a gambling addiction.

The gambler becomes moody, withdrawn and irritable and preoccupied with gambling, winnings of the past and getting hold of more money with which to gamble.

Gambling addicts may start to borrow or steal money, either from family members, employers or both, with which to gamble and will often carry on gambling until they have nothing left at all. They will let bills go unpaid while spending available money on their gambling pursuits. They will try, unsuccessfully, to put a stop to their gambling. Larger and larger amounts will be needed to produce the same sense of excitement – a state of escapist euphoria, which is used to counteract feelings of anxiety and depression. A gambler will often lie to others about the extent of the money at stake or the risks taken.

The bank accounts of family members will sometimes be accessed, jewellery and household goods pawned, money taken from employers or money accessed on credit cards or overdrafts – all for the purposes of gambling.

Significant relationships start suffering severely, with marriages often ending in divorce and relationships breaking up. Jobs are often lost and studies interrupted or ended. Often others are relied on to help the gambling addict out of a desperate financial situation.

Family relationships suffer greatly when the breadwinner is a gambling addict. There is loss of trust, worry, despair and fear. Characteristically there is also a lack of funds for family activities and a general atmosphere of tension and anxiety in the family home.

The gambling addict often has fantasies about the great life of luxury easy and quick money will buy for him or herself, family and friends. Sadly, this is seldom realised as most winnings are gambled away again.


Extensive therapy, preferably in groups, is the only way to treat gambling addiction. It is essential that the person concerned acknowledges the progressive illness and has a real desire to stop. Continued denial about this disease will result in the failure of therapy.

A compulsive gambler can never gamble again – not even on a small scale. A complete change of lifestyle is called for here. People who have had a problem with compulsive gambling in the past never seem to be able to gamble on a small scale or in a responsible manner again. The old obsession returns again and the same destructive behaviour patterns come to the fore once more.

Compulsive gamblers also have to be aware of possible triggers for relapse such as alcohol or other drug use. Most compulsive gamblers should avoid the use of other substances altogether as cross addiction may occur (the person substitutes one addiction for another).

As with other addictions, an addict cannot simply exercise willpower to stop. Admission of powerlessness against gambling and willingness to get involved in therapy with a professional and attendance of Gambling Anonymous meetings have a far greater long-term success rate. Gambling addiction, like alcoholism, is an illness, and should be treated as such.

Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders may also be present in someone with gambling addiction. If this is the case, antidepressants may be prescribed.

Test yourself

Below are 10 questions from the US National Council on Problem Gambling on gambling behaviour.

1. Have you often gambled longer than you had planned?

2. Have you often gambled until your last cent was gone?

3. Have thoughts of gambling caused you to lose sleep?

4. Have you used your income or savings to gamble while letting bills go unpaid?

5. Have you made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling?

6. Have you broken the law or considered breaking the law to finance your gambling?

7. Have you borrowed money to finance your gambling?

8. Have you felt depressed or suicidal because of your gambling losses?

9. Have you been remorseful after gambling?

10. Have you gambled to get money to meet your financial obligations?

If you or someone you know answers "Yes" to any of these questions, consider seeking assistance from a professional regarding this gambling behaviour.

Reviewed by Carry Bekker, Stepping Stones Addiction Centre