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Gambling - when does it become a problem?

09 May 2014

When people think of addiction or a problem behaviour they often think of substances such as alcohol or drugs, but another common addiction which can have devastating impacts on individuals and their families is gambling.

Of course not everyone who goes to the casino on a Friday night or does the weekly lotto has a gambling problem. Like anything else, there is a broad spectrum from people who never gamble to people who lose everything because of their gambling.

The different levels are:

  • Social gambling is casual and fun. The person may gain enjoyment from the gambling or social company associated with it.
  • Professional gamblers make their living by gambling and consider it a profession. They are skilled in the games they choose to play and are able to control both the amount of money and time spent gambling. Professional gamblers are not addicted to gambling. They patiently wait for the best bet and then try to win as much as they can.
  • Heavy gambling is when the person gambles often or with large amounts of money, or both. Their moods and emotions are likely to depend on gambling.
  • Problem gambling is when the person is less and less able to resist the impulse to gamble. The gambling affects their moods, relationships, work, study and finances in a negative way.
  • Compulsive gambling is when the person is unable to resist the impulse to gamble. The person is experiencing an addiction and their wellbeing is badly affected by the gambling.

Some people progress through each level over time. Others may reach the level of problem or compulsion very quickly and some may stick within the social gambling realm without ever experiencing any problems.

For those at the problem or compulsive end of the spectrum gambling is likely to also be affecting others around the person gambling.

Gambling has become a problem if it affects a person’s wellbeing in any way and is also a problem if it is affecting those around them.

So what are the signs to look for that indicate someone you care about may be experiencing problems with their gambling?

Gambling might be a problem if the person is:

  • spending more money and time than intended on gambling;
  • feeling life is boring when they are not gambling;
  • finding their family and friends are becoming less important than their gambling;
  • seeing gambling as a way to get out of debt;
  • taking unexplained absences from work;
  • constantly borrowing money to pay ordinary bills or expenses;
  • start selling personal items, like their TV or stereo, to get money or take other people’s property for the same reason;
  • becoming secretive about money;
  • becoming secretive about where they are and what they are doing;
  • starting to acquire new credit cards;
  • suddenly starting to avoid certain people (eg, they might owe them money);
  • dipping into savings or other assets; or
  • losing interest in social activities or refusing invitations they would usually accept.

Someone with a gambling problem might try to cover up by:

  • coming up with rational and reasonable excuses to explain absences (eg, working late, car breaking down, visiting friends, studying at the library);
  • hiding bank and credit card statements, maybe saying the bank never sent them;
  • offering excuses or telling lies to explain how they have lost money (eg, computer error in their pay, losing their wallet, unexpected expenses, bank made a mistake); or
  • working overtime or getting a second job to cover debts.

But don’t despair, change is possible

It takes persistence, patience and courage to change any behaviour, but it can be done and changing gambling behaviour is no different. Addictions can be a large part of people’s strategies for coping with other distress.

That means that it is unwise to remove one coping strategy without replacing it with another. Recovery from addictions can therefore be a chance for people to reconsider their life as a whole, and – with the right support – change their life for the better.

It is not uncommon for people on a journey of recovery from addiction to have relapses. While these may be painful, they can also be seen as great opportunities for the person to learn more about what things in their life make them vulnerable to the addiction and put further strategies in place.

What can you do to help someone you are concerned about?

It can be hard trying to help someone who gambles, especially if they do not think they have a problem or do not want to stop.

Discussing the issue directly can be confronting for both yourself and the person who gambles. So make sure you find a time that is suitable to have the discussion, focus the conversation on your concerns and their gambling behaviour.

Talk about what you are feeling. Describe the behaviour that makes you feel this way and the reasons for this. For example:

“I’m concerned about you coming home late at night and I don’t know where you’ve been. I worry because anything could have happened to you, you might have been in an accident or you may have hurt yourself.”

Avoid “you” statements, such as, “you should…” or “you must…” as this can sound accusatory and blameful, which can lead to defensiveness, creating a communication barrier between you and the other person.

Ask for their feedback, for example: “What are your thoughts?

By asking the other person to contribute to the conversation and letting them discuss their perspective, you are demonstrating that you are open and willing to listen without judging them.

Listen carefully and repeat back to them your understanding of what they said. This can help the person to feel understood.

Don’t be surprised if the person you are approaching is not ready for this discussion and don’t blame yourself if this is the case.

Try to remember that changing behaviour is a tricky process and people have to be ready to make the changes for themselves. But showing that you care enough to raise your concerns allows the person to know you are there for them when they are ready.

You can also provide them with the number of the Gambling Helpline, 0800 654 655, which is a free, confidential service open 24 hours where trained counsellors can support someone with their gambling issue as well as offering support to people affected by the person's gambling such as partners, colleagues and friends.

So if you have concerns about your own or someone else’s gambling there is help and support available. Don’t feel like you are alone in your situation. Reach out and make today the day you make a positive choice about your future.


Melanie Shaw has 20 years’ experience working in the mental health field and has specialised in trauma therapy work in the United Kingdom where she has spent most of her career. While in New Zealand, Melanie has worked in in-patient settings as a senior clinician specialising in mental health rehabilitation and recovery with service users with high and complex needs. Melanie is now the mental health specialist at Lifeline Aotearoa where she works to support, develop and oversee mental health services with a significant focus on the National Depression Initiative and peer support services.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016