Problem Gambling: 'The Hidden Addiction'
People from all walks of life can and do develop a problem with gambling - young people and children, teenagers, adults, retired people, professional people including those who work in the City, sportsmen and women, as well as those who work in the gambling industry.
UK research shows that a very small percentage of people who gamble recreationally go on to develop a problem or are adversely affected by it. This is still, however, hundreds of thousands of people in the UK with a problem, with very little specialist help provision compared to other dependencies.
Many who work in the field of treatment do feel though that there is a very big problem here because of the stigma in admitting to gambling problems. For example the label of ‘untrustworthy’ comes with the territory, or the image perhaps of someone ‘shifty’ or ‘dodgy’ or the notion of being weak willed. In addition, because it is not so easily detected like heavy use of alcohol or drugs for example, it tends to lend itself to going underground – often with a great suppression of emotions.
Problem gambling is simply more able to be hidden and can become protracted for great periods, leaving family members in great shock when the extent of the problem materializes, often years later. There may well be a lot of people who do not admit to having a problem at all and, because many are in denial, to the self also. It is just too painful to acknowledge the deceit and the lies and many are hoping for that big win to redress the losses and make it all ok somehow. Given the proliferation in gambling forms and opportunities in recent years there may well be a great many more people who have developed a gambling dependency than the figures suggest.
Help is available through some specialist providers such as a National Helpline (GamCare) which also has some counselling partners around the UK offering free counselling. There’s also Residential Rehab with the Gordon Moody Association and in London the Soho Problem Gambling Clinic. There’s also the network of Gamblers Anonymous groups. For those with some financial means there are also private clinics, which provide help with a variety of dependencies and other problems. Private counselling and psychotherapy is another option.
It is certainly possible to tackle this dependency. If people are struggling then it can be valuable and very helpful to have some therapeutic input to examine this and raise self-awareness and begin a process of real dialogue, support and healing. In describing a problem gambler’s life and experiences we look as we go along at anything that for them may have contributed to the problem or seems to be significant in some way. Examples might include - an early big win, a need to escape from some sort of trauma experienced, using as an escapism from stress, a parent or significant other person who gambled (or had other dependencies) in the family, being used to put on bets for other family members, going to the greyhound track with Dad as a special treat, going to bingo with Mum, an early introduction to gambling as a child, the importance of winning and losing in the family.
There are so many individual and unique factors. These may not affect everyone in the same way because for some gambling stays recreational. Many go on to have no problem but we do know that for some people it can set up something that is quite difficult to shift. For some we could perhaps say it is ‘too’ good at answering their needs and then it is difficult to stop because people are now ‘needing’ it rather than ‘buying’ a service or using it for recreation.
Life changes such as retirement or redundancy, or being ill, bored, with more time on a person’s hands, these can all have a big impact. Gambling may start off as great fun, for some becoming a good companion or friend, with people identifying very strongly sometimes with it. Gambling can be quite useful in terms of answering a whole array of needs, where these needs are not being met elsewhere, literally filling a void (the existential aspect). Of course it’s something to do, a pastime, some may consider it as an easy way to make money (people are more inclined to remember the wins and suppress the losses), or get hooked on the ‘high’ of winning, for some it may a lovely place to go, or be very convenient, fun and exciting in an otherwise humdrum existence.
In addition to exploring the personal history, relationship to and forms of gambling (these may or may not vary over time), any other dependencies or problems, an examination of the upside and adverse effects of the gambling needs to be undertaken - how is it problematic? This is usually so much more than just financial. Is too much time spent gambling, are crimes committed because of needing to fund it? Has it affected work, health, relationships, excluding other people, interests and opportunities. Not to forget all that never was – problem gamblers speak about not having a home, car, children, holidays, relationships, the savings lost. There is often a huge sense of loss, very strong feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, shame and guilt. Depression enters the frame and negative thinking.
Boundaries typically start to go all over the place as people feel more desperate or cornered and the stakes get higher and higher, with gambling to get out of debt worsening the situation considerably. Relationships for example can be very badly affected. Problem gamblers often run from one situation to another, with strong repeating patterns. What it does to the person cannot be underestimated - the ups, the downs, the rollercoaster existence, exhaustion, real despair and despondency (it is not unusual for problem gamblers to feel suicidal and to attempt suicide). Family members may bail out the gambler time after time until the ties are broken in many cases. Family members suffer hugely also which is why many of the specialist providers see these people too.
It is important to explore how a problem gambler might cope day to day pressures and stressful events that may come up in life from time to time – what if there’s a big disappointment, financial pressure, a bereavement, health issues? It is important to acknowledge that lapses are a part of recovery and to normalise these and look at strategies for coping and support systems in place. Some CBT work can be very effective in looking at the detail of a lapse (recording the actions, thoughts, feelings, physiology) – what do we make of it, what can we learn from it, where are the pivotal moments?
Very importantly we look at how to create or make a different sort of life, and future hopes, dreams and goals. Creative work later in the process can be very powerful and provide a rich source of material for us and allow more links and subtle nuances to emerge and facilitate bringing our work towards an end. Clients often enjoy this work and find something close to the heart here, something that really speaks to them.
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