Causes and Treatment of Gambling Disorders


Gambling involves betting something of value on an uncertain event with the intention of winning something else of value. It varies from scratchcards, lottery tickets, and private bets with friends to high-stakes casino games. It can be a socially acceptable pastime for those who have the resources to gamble, but is often associated with crime and addiction. It can impoverish families and even lead to blackmail.

A growing number of people, particularly young people, are gambling more and more frequently. In the UK, a recent survey (NHS Digital 2019) found that 57% of adults and 43% of young people aged 16-24 reported gambling in the past year. More and more young people are also gambling online. These findings are a concern because evidence suggests that gambling is a risk factor for mental illness, substance use disorders, and financial difficulties.

Although the causes of gambling disorder are complex, it is generally agreed that an underlying comorbidity and co-occurring disorders contribute to the development and maintenance of gambling problems. A person’s temperament, genes, and environment also play a role. There is a need to understand more about the role of these factors in order to develop better strategies for prevention and treatment.

Many factors make someone more vulnerable to developing gambling disorder, including having a family history of the condition, a personal history of depression or anxiety, or experiencing financial difficulty. It can be especially dangerous for people who are already struggling with other psychiatric illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, to engage in gambling because they may have a higher risk of developing compulsive and addictive behaviours.

Problem gambling is harmful to both psychological and physical health and is a major cause of distress for many individuals and their families. It has been referred to as an impulse control disorder and is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). It can cause feelings of despair, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and depression and can affect work, relationships, and finances.

There are a range of treatment options for problem gambling, including psychotherapy, such as behavior therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Medications such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines can be helpful in reducing cravings and helping to manage withdrawal symptoms. Other treatments include strengthening your support network, learning healthier ways to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as exercise, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, and practicing relaxation techniques, and joining a peer support group, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which follows a model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. In some cases, inpatient or residential treatment and rehab programs may be required for those with severe gambling disorders.