Problem Gambling: Signs, Myths and Facts

Also called “ludomania” or “compulsive gambling”, problem gambling occurs when someone has an urge to continuously gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop. It is not the gambler’s behaviour which defines whether problem gambling is occurring. Rather, it is whether the gambler or others experience harm from the gambling behaviour. At the severe end, it may be referred to as clinical “pathological gambling” if the gambler’s behaviour meets certain criteria (Wikipedia, 2012).

Australia’s Ministerial Council of Gambling recommended the following definition:

“Problem gambling is characterised by difficulties in limiting money and/or time spent on gambling which leads to adverse consequences for the gambler, others, or for the community.” (Ministerial Council on Gambling, n.d.)

Some groups, particularly those involved in helping problem gamblers to recover, refer to problem gambling as a “gambling addiction”, but the American Psychiatric Association (2000) considers it to be an impulse control disorder rather than strictly an addiction. That said, pathological gambling is particularly similar to substance addictions, especially in terms of how the brain’s chemistry comes to be altered as the addiction/ compulsion gains ground.

Symptoms of problem gambling

According to the DSM-IV, the manual used by doctors and mental health professionals to ascertain diagnoses, pathological gambling is considered its own diagnosis only when it occurs independently of other impulse, mood, or thought disorders. In order to be diagnosed, an individual must have at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Preoccupation. The gambler is obsessed with thoughts about gambling, having fantasies about it or recalling past experiences.
  • Tolerance. The gambler requires larger or more frequent bets to experience the same “rush”.
  • Withdrawal. The gambler feels restless or irritable with any attempts to stop or reduce gambling.
  • Escape. The person gambles to improve mood or escape problems.
  • Chasing. The gambler tries to win back gambling losses with more gambling.
  • Lying. The gambler tries to hide the extent of his or her gambling by lying to family, friends, or therapists.
  • Loss of control. The gambler has unsuccessfully attempted to reduce gambling.
  • Illegal acts. The gambler has broken the law in order to obtain gambling money or recover gambling losses. The law-breaking may include acts of theft, fraud, embezzlement, or forgery.
  • Risked significant relationship. The person gambles despite risking or losing a relationship, job, or other significant opportunity.
  • Bailout. The gambler turns to family, friends, or another third party for financial assistance as a result of gambling.

(American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Wikipedia, 2012)

The 20-question diagnostic for compulsive gambling

If you are extending social support to someone who may have a gambling problem, the above diagnostic criteria are useful for your reference. In trying to help the person to acknowledge their disorder, however, you may find it easier to get them to answer these diagnostic questions offered by Gamblers Anonymous:

  1. Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
  2. Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
  3. Did gambling affect your reputation?
  4. Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  5. Did you ever gamble to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
  6. Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
  7. After losing did you feel you must return “ASAP” and win back your losses?
  8. After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
  9. Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
  10. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
  11. Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
  12. Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditures?
  13. Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
  14. Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
  15. Have you ever gambled to escape worry, trouble, boredom or loneliness?
  16. Have you ever committed an illegal act to finance gambling?
  17. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty sleeping?
  18. Do arguments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
  19. Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
  20. Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

(Gambling Addictions, 2009)

If an honest (not-in-denial) assessment by the person turns up an affirmative answer to at least seven of the questions, the person may need to seek treatment for pathological gambling.

Compulsive gambling: myth and fact

Have you already attempted to speak with a gambler about his or her gambling patterns? Chances are that the person overrode any concerns you might have broached about their behaviour by saying that they couldn’t possibly become addicted because they don’t gamble regularly, they don’t lose more than a few hundred dollars at a time, and they always act responsibly. This is the moment when you take a deep breath and carefully help them de-bunk the following myths about gambling addiction.

Myth: “True problem gamblers gamble every day.”

Fact: It’s not the precise frequency of the gambling that determines the addiction; some pathological gamblers may only hit the tables once a month. Rather, it is the consequences – emotional, financial, and relational – which indicate an addiction.

Myth: “Gambling is only an issue when the money is all gone.”

Fact: The amount of money a gambler wins or loses does not determine the addiction. Usually gamblers incur enough debt that the financial consequences begin to impact on their lives, but this is not always the case. Some gamblers may win big, and then lose it all the next week.

Myth: “One can’t become addicted to something like gambling.”

Fact: The “rush” that gamblers get – that sense of euphoria that impels the gambler to keep going with it – involves the same changes in brain chemistry that alcoholics and drug addicts experience. That is, it takes more and more of the behaviour to produce the same “high”, thus creating the cravings and accompanying withdrawal symptoms if there is no access to gambling.

More gambling behaviour, however, requires more money to fuel it, necessitating the increasingly larger risks taken (including illegal acts) to produce the funds to continue. When the compulsion to continue becomes overwhelming, the person is addicted, even though they may strenuously deny that they have a problem.

Myth: “Pathological gambling is really just a financial issue.”

Fact: The problem is the obsession. Compulsive gambling is an emotional problem with financial consequences. Even if someone pays off the gambler’s debts, he or she will still be a person with an uncontrolled compulsion.

Myth: “Only irresponsible people have a problem with gambling.”

Fact: There is a widespread misconception that people suffering from addictions are weak-willed, lazy, or “ne’er do well” types. The truth is that anyone can become addicted to gambling. Once the compulsion to gamble takes over, however, many are the people who engage in irresponsible or illegal behaviours in order to support the obsession.

Myth: “All gamblers are criminals.”

Fact: Some gamblers do resort to criminal means, such as robbery, to support their habit, but that is not always the case. It is often because gambler feels a loss of control that he or she is driven to engage in such behaviours.

Myth: “A person with a gambling problem will bet on anything.”

Fact: Gamblers usually have their preferred form of wagering. Someone who loves pokies, for example, may not go anywhere near the racetrack.

Myth: “As long as the gambler can afford it, gambling is not really a problem.”

Fact: Gambling interferes with all aspects of the person’s life, not just the financial slice. Just because the person still has money to burn does not mean that their gambling is not causing problems with relationships, work, or self-esteem. It is the behaviour of gambling that is the main problem, not the financial consequences.

Myth: “To help a problem gambler break the addiction we would have to pay off all their debts.”

Fact: NO! Bailing the gambler out might just be enabling their behaviour to continue. Of course, gamblers need to address the issue of debt and prioritise sorting out their finances, but the most important task is to end the obsession that is compelling the person to gamble; breaking the addiction is about getting the person help.

Myth: “We would easily be able to recognise it if a person were engaged in problem gambling.”

Fact: The heroin addict may have needle marks. The alcoholic may leave empty bottles lying around, or have alcoholic breath. There are few readily observable symptoms of compulsive gambling, especially if the person is doing online gambling, which is easy to hide (adapted from Gambling Addictions, 2009).

This article is an extract of the Mental Health Social Support Specialty “Aiding Addicts”. For more information on MHSS, visit  


  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (fourth edition, text revision. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Quick reference to the diagnostic criteria from DSM-IV-TR. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Gambling addictions. (2009). Recognising gambling addiction. Gambling addictions: CRC Health Group. Retrieved on 8 May, 2012 from: