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Tuesday 18 September 2018

Expert view: How to tell if your gambling has become a problem

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Colin O'Gara

Gambling problems can emerge at any stage of life. Many of the individuals we treat for problem gambling report the onset of problems in adolescence. ­Others develop problems in middle age. Very rarely, older people suffering from Parkinson's disease are prescribed medication that can, as a side effect, cause problem gambling.

Women are more likely to start gambling in later life whereas men gamble and develop gambling problems earlier in life. Doctors working in the area of addiction refer to problem gambling as 'Gambling Disorder'. In medical terms, Gambling Disorder is currently classified as an addiction like drug or alcohol addiction. This was not always the case, however, as in the not so distant past, excessive gambling was not considered to be an addiction of the same magnitude or importance as alcohol and drug addiction.

Decades of research into gambling addiction has changed this - proving gambling problems to be on par, clinically and scientifically with drug and alcohol addiction. Our own research indicates that Irish online gamblers are having serious problems with gambling - taking out loans and selling their possessions to gamble, with the majority of our sample feeling that they have a problem with online gambling and that they had bet more than they could afford to lose. The majority of the participants we recently surveyed also reported they would prefer to gamble on websites which regularly told them how much they lost.

If more people are aware of the signs of an emerging gambling problem, we might be able to direct more people to treatment. So, what are the signs that one should be aware of in relation to the development of problem gambling?

* Being overly preoccupied with gambling: This is often a sign of problems, and can involve thinking about odds, planning the next gambling session, ruminating over past losses, reliving past wins, fantasising about vast riches as a result of gambling. Early on, problem gamblers talk openly about their interest in gambling, however in the later stages of Gambling Disorder, individuals often hide their interest and gambling behaviour.

* Gambling with higher amounts of money: This can sometimes be a telltale sign that something is wrong. A pattern of increasing spending on gambling can also be a worrying feature. It is not uncommon for a problem gambler to spend an entire month's wages in a day. Problem gamblers also frequently underestimate the amount they spend on gambling. If you are concerned about your own gambling or that of a loved one, simply calculating the amount spent over a day, week and month can be a good starting point in working out whether there is a problem or not.

* Changes in behaviour: Family members sometimes notice that there is a change in behaviour as the gambling behaviour of their loved one worsens. They can report their loved one becoming moodier, angry and distant.

* Borrowing money or selling items to fund gambling: Our recent research of online gamblers in Ireland showed that 75pc of our study sample had borrowed money or sold something to fund their gambling. This is a clear warning sign with regard to problem gambling.

* Evidence of problem gambling around the home: Bank account statements may show excessive gambling. Sometimes getting access to bank statements can be difficult as the person suffering from problem gambling may seek to keep all mail and bills from their partner to hide a problem.

* Excessive time on a smartphone: There are many reasons nowadays as to why people spend too much time on a smartphone - social media, news sites, video gaming, work emails. Excessive gambling is another reason for excessive smartphone usage. Family members of a problem gambler often recount that they had no idea that there was any problem apart from their loved one spending a great deal of time on the smartphone. As Gambling Disorder is often a hidden illness, this may be the only clue for family members that there may be a problem with gambling.

* Attempts to reduce gambling: Many problem gamblers have identified that they should gamble less, but when attempt to do so encounter a change in mood, irritability or restlessness. When a person continues to experience urges or cravings to gamble when there are clear problems (debt, relationship and work problems) this can suggest problem gambling.

* Lack of insight: Most individuals suffering from addiction struggle to see the extent of their problems. Gambling Disorder can be particularly problematic in this regard. We encounter individuals who have clearly experienced grave problems as a result of gambling but continue as if there is no problem, convinced that they will have a 'big win' to solve all their problems.

* Gambling to regulate emotions: Gambling regularly to distract from low moods or when anxious may be a sign that gambling is being used to drown out emotions rather than to deal with them in a healthy manner, i.e. exercise, talking to friends and family, or counselling.

* Lying is very common in all addiction illnesses: Gambling Disorder is no different. If you are lying to loved ones about the extent or nature of your gambling, this is likely to indicate a problem.

* Missing work, losing friends or having arguments with loved ones: These signs are not uncommon when gambling becomes disordered.

Colin O'Gara is a consultant psychiatrist and head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital, Dublin

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