Whether it’s buying a Lotto ticket, placing a bet on a horse race or using the pokies, most people gamble at some stage in their lives. For some, it’s harmless fun but for others it can harm their mental and physical health, hurt relationships, impact their performance at work or study, get them into debt, and even lead to suicide. The good news is that it’s possible to gamble without causing yourself harm. The key is to recognise when gambling is causing you problems, and take action before the problem gets out of hand.
Gambling is an activity that involves wagering something of value on a random event, with the aim of winning more money or a prize. While this usually refers to money, gambling can also be done with other items that have a value such as marbles or collectable game pieces in games like Pogs and Magic: The Gathering.
A variety of techniques can be used to help people overcome gambling problems and improve their wellbeing. These include cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy and self-help groups like Gamblers Anonymous. In addition, exercise and relaxation therapies have been found to be effective for some people. There is also evidence that some psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and substance misuse, can trigger or make gambling problems worse.
The understanding of gambling addiction has undergone a significant shift in recent years. For the first time, it is now recognised that some individuals have a comorbidity with other psychiatric conditions and that their pathological gambling may be an expression of these other problems. This change in perspective is reflected in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, which includes a new section on behavioral addictions and specifically lists pathological gambling as one of these conditions.
It is important to distinguish between gambling and risk-taking behaviours that are not necessarily harmful, such as taking out insurance or investing in stocks and shares. In these cases, the risk is shifted from the individual to the company or organisation offering these products and services. However, many other types of risk-taking behaviour have the potential to cause harm, including chasing losses, overestimating the likelihood of future wins and misjudging the risk of a given outcome.
The nomenclature around gambling and gambling problems is complicated by the fact that researchers, psychiatrists and other treatment care clinicians frame questions differently, depending on their disciplinary training, experience and special interests. This has resulted in a wide range of terms for gambling-related phenomena, and some confusion for those outside the field. However, the current terminology is an improvement on previous attempts to define gambling, which were inconsistent and lacked precision. The current system is consistent with the way that other addictive behaviours are defined and labelled, for example drug addiction or alcoholism. This consistency is critical to the effectiveness of research and treatment. It is also critical for policy makers to ensure that the terminology accurately reflects and describes the nature of the problem.