Gambling is a risky activity where you stake something of value (like money) on a random event with the intention of winning. It is possible to make a profit from gambling, but it is also possible to lose everything you have. It is important to understand the risks of gambling and to be able to recognise when gambling becomes problematic.
People gamble for many reasons, including the thrill of winning, socialising with friends and escaping worries or stress. However, for some, it can become dangerously out of control and cause them to spend more than they can afford. This can lead to debt and other problems.
The brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine when you win, but it is also activated when you lose. This makes you want to continue gambling, and it can be hard to know when to stop. Some people can walk away after a few rounds of poker or a couple of spins on the roulette wheel, but others can’t. This can lead to a slippery slope into problem gambling.
Some people try to increase their chances of winning by doing things like throwing the dice a certain way, sitting in a lucky seat or wearing a particular piece of clothing. This is called ‘heuristics’ and it is human nature to try to gain control over unpredictable events such as the outcome of a football match or a scratchcard.
Gamblers often overestimate their chances of winning because they can remember past experiences of a string of wins or losses. This is a cognitive distortion called’recency bias’.
Research has shown that people who gamble with problematic behaviours are more likely to have other mental health problems. This includes depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. If you are worried about the mental health of a friend or relative, it is important to seek professional help.
It is difficult to define ‘problem gambling’ because there is no agreed nomenclature between researchers, psychiatrists and other treatment care clinicians. It can be helpful to use a framework to describe gambling problems, such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
You may not be able to change someone else’s habits, but you can help them to learn healthier ways to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as exercising, spending time with non-gambling friends and taking up new hobbies. You can also suggest that they speak to a counsellor or a trusted family member about their concerns. Counselling can help them think about how their behaviour affects others and consider options. There are no FDA-approved medications for treating gambling disorders, but some medications can help treat co-occurring conditions such as depression and anxiety. There are also support groups that can help. There are also online self-help tips and resources. This content mentions suicide or suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety. Please read with care and contact your GP or local crisis service for further support. If you are worried about the mental health and safety of yourself or a young person, see our information on Safeguarding.