Certified Interfaith Pastoral Counseling, Coaching and Trauma Relief Service


Problem Gambling

Understanding Problem Gambling

Gambling involves risking something of value in the hopes of obtaining something of greater value. In many cultures, people gamble on games and events, and most do so without experiencing problems. In Nevada, casinos and other locations offer gambling as a harmless form of entertainment and a convenient way for adults to socialize. Social gamblers plan how much time and money they will spend gambling, and they stick to their plan. For the social gambler, it’s all about having fun.

For nearly 6% of Nevada adults, however, gambling can become a serious problem that continues, long after the fun is gone.

The American Psychiatric Association has recognized problem gambling as a diagnosable and treatable mental health disorder since 1980. Problem gambling is defined as an addictive disorder in which the individual experiences “persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior that disrupts personal, family or vocational pursuits.” Problem gamblers can no longer control their gambling, regardless of the outcome of the game, and despite increasing negative consequences.

The type of game played is not on its own an indicator of who has a gambling problem. A person who plays bingo twice a week may be just as susceptible to having a gambling addiction as the person who goes to the casino daily to play their favorite slot machine. Likewise the amount of money wagered, is not a clear indicator of who has a problem. Some individuals can wager thousands of dollars per month and not have a problem with gambling, while others may wager much smaller amounts but experience substantial gambling-related difficulties.

Problem gambling, like most addictions, simply does not discriminate. A small percentage of people who gamble will develop gambling problems regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or gender. Although it is not possible to predict exactly who may develop a gambling problem, once identified, it CAN be treated…and people DO recover.

When the Fun Stops

Just as some people can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, it is possible for a person to become obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to gamble. For the problem gambler, making a bet is not just about having fun or winning money. Gambling becomes an emotional response to change the way they feel. Some problem gamblers may gamble to relieve boredom or avoid feelings of anxiousness or stress. Others may gamble to ‘numb out’ when feeling helpless, guilty, or depressed. As they continue to gamble, they become more and more emotionally and mentally dependent on gambling, with less and less control. The impact of this addiction is much greater than the obvious financial losses that can result from repeated gambling. The long-term result is a steady deterioration of the mental and physical health of both the gambler and their family.

Surprisingly, problem gamblers are often the last ones to realize what is happening to them in spite of mounting negative consequences and increasing emotional impact. They may attribute their difficulties to a mere financial problem or believe they are just not being ‘smart’ enough when they gamble. The fantasy that one more big win will solve the financial problems and return everything to normal drives them on to gamble even harder.

If your gambling is no longer fun, don’t wait for the problem to get worse… Get Help Now or call the 24-hour Problem Gamblers Helpline.

Know the Signs

Most people who gamble do so with no harmful effects. They set limits and stick to them. However, for a small percentage of the population, gambling can become more than a game, and lead to serious consequences for both the gambler and their family.

Here are some of the warning signs:

For the Gambler:
  • Gambling to escape worry or trouble
  • Gambling to get money to solve financial difficulties
  • Unable to stop playing regardless of winning or losing
  • Gambling until the last dollar is gone
  • Losing time from work due to gambling
  • Borrowing money to pay gambling debts
  • Neglecting family because of gambling
  • Lying about time and money spent gambling

For the Family:
  • Unexplained financial problems
  • Reduced involvement in social/group activities outside the home
  • Emotional distress, anger, depression
  • Lack of communication among family members
  • Items of value lost or missing
  • Family members working overtime or taking a second job to make ends meet
  • One member (gambler) noticeably absent from or disinterested in normal family activities
Impact and Consequences

When someone has a gambling problem, all aspects of their life can be impacted. Problem gamblers experience financial, emotional, and personal consequences that affect not only themselves, but also their family, friends and co-workers. As the amount of time and money spent gambling increases, so do the losses. This can create significant stress for the gambler and lead to emotional and even physical consequences, as eventually funds may not be available to meet the most basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, etc. In desperation the gambler may begin lying and/or stealing to cover up the problems, creating further stress for everyone around them. Relationships become strained, finances are drained, and everyone, including the gambler, struggles to maintain some semblance of normal life as it used to be, before the gambling problem began.

Financial Consequences

Richard*, a successful, 45-year old corporate executive, began gambling to deal with boredom and loneliness after his marriage ended abruptly in divorce. His healthy financial condition enabled him to gamble for many years with seemingly little consequence. Over time, however, the money ran out, the credit ran up, the house went into foreclosure and his depression accelerated. His financial, emotional and physical health deteriorated along with his work performance. After losing everything he had worked over 20 years to earn, the company decided to let him go but provided him with a substantial severance pay which he quickly lost through continued gambling. (*Not his real name)

Financial issues are often the first outward sign of a gambling problem. When gambling becomes uncontrollable, the problem gambler will spend even more money, attempting and usually failing, to win back their losses. Here are some of the financial consequences that may occur:

  • Overdue bills
  • Maxed out credit cards / Denial of credit
  • Always short of money, despite adequate income
  • Cannot provide for basic needs (food, clothing, shelter)
  • Relies on borrowing money from friends, family or coworkers
  • Develops a pattern of extremely high-risk investing or frequent trading
  • Money is pulled from home equity, savings, investment or retirement accounts
  • Household and personal items are pawned or sold for cash
  • Frequent, multiple payday loans or cash-advances
  • Property is repossessed
  • Home is in foreclosure

Many problem gamblers believe that money is both the cause of, and the solution to their problems, so they continue to gamble in spite of the losses, believing they can fix all the problems with just one more ‘big win’. Sadly, there can never be a big enough ‘win’ to solve the problem of the addiction, because it is an emotional illness, not a financial one.

For this reason, the real solution is for the gambler to deal with their addiction, not just the money problems it creates. Treatment and support resources can help the gambler stop gambling, and with abstinence from gambling, the stress from financial pressures will begin to be relieved. Long term solutions will require hard work, debt repayment and careful planning but the finances of a problem gambler and their family can recover over time.

To learn more about dealing with the financial impact of problem gambling, please read:

Emotional Impact

The emotional impact of problem gambling is felt by the gambler and everyone around them, including their children.

  • Adam*, a bright, energetic 15 year old, remembers what it was like when his Mom was still gambling. “I ate lunch and dinner at my friend’s really often. I always hung out there when there was no food at our house, hoping my friend’s parents would invite me to eat with them.” Adam was only eight years old at the time and was unaware that his Mom was spending the grocery money on gambling.

  • Shelly* recalls the humiliation she felt the day a security guard brought her children in to the grocery store to find their mother. She was busy playing video poker and had left her two young children in the parked car. Although they suffered no physical harm, the emotional pain was no less damaging.

  • A high school counselor, concerned about the deteriorating academic performance of a senior honors student, questioned the young man about the situation. After repeated denials of substance abuse or other personal problems, the young man finally admitted that he had no time for schoolwork because he was also trying to hold down a full-time job. His reason? Both parents were gambling uncontrollably and he needed the income to help make the mortgage payments on the family’s home.*Not their real names

When there is a gambling problem in the family, everyone feels the pain, no matter how strong they may be. Spouses may feel angry and resentful or overly responsible for the gambler’s behavior. Children may act out and have difficulty in school, or become withdrawn, not understanding what is happening. Stress in the home can create increased risk for domestic violence and problem gamblers are more likely to become separated or divorced.

The good news is that resources are available in our community to help the gambler and the family members who are being affected by a loved one’s gambling problem. Gam-Anon is a free support group specifically for the friends and loved ones of problem gamblers. Talking with others who are experiencing similar concerns can help family members better understand the gambling disorder, and develop healthy coping and problem solving skills. Professional counseling is also available for the gambler and their spouse.

Substance Abuse

Problem gamblers often become isolated and may turn to substances to soothe their pain. Their gambling can increase during periods of stress or depression and during periods of substance use or abstinence. Those who are in recovery from alcohol or drug dependence are at higher risk to develop a gambling problem, and should be made aware of the potential risks of gambling. The spouses and children of problem gamblers are also at higher risk for substance abuse disorders. Although gambling may seem like a harmless ‘sober’ activity, it can quickly become a substitute addiction for the person who is seeking or maintaining recovery from substance abuse.

Help is available for people who are experiencing problem gambling and substance abuse, but the unique characteristics of each addiction must be considered when seeking treatment and supportive resources. Individuals struggling with both addictions will benefit by receiving care from professional counselors with expertise in both gambling and substance abuse. Recovering from a dual addiction can certainly be more challenging for the individual, but added support can be found by connecting with other people who have similar experiences of dealing with more than one addiction in their recovery.

Suicide Risk

The stress, pain and isolation of a gambling problem may cause some individuals to feel that there is no way out, leading to thoughts of suicide. Up to half of individuals in treatment for gambling disorder have suicidal ideation, and about 17% have attempted suicide. However, the vast majority of problem gamblers who have had thoughts of suicide have gone on to recover and lead healthy lives. Treatment and support have been shown to help individuals gain healthy coping skills and stop problematic gambling behavior, relieving feelings of desperation and thoughts of suicide.

Warning signs that someone may be at risk for suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless, having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
Every person has unique needs and circumstances related to their gambling problem, so there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution that works for everyone. It is important for each person to consider the resources available, and choose the ones that will best meet their needs and help them to recover.
If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please get immediate help by calling:
If you are in crisis, 
call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Note:  This page is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified provider, prior to making any decision about your health.