Supporting a loved one with a gambling addiction  

Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling or gambling disorder, is a type of behavioural addiction characterised by an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite the negative consequences it may have on one's personal, social, and professional life.


What is gambling addiction?

Gambling addiction is classified as a behavioural addiction or an impulse control disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It can have severe consequences, including financial ruin, legal problems, and damage to personal relationships.

Case study (anonymised) 

It may be challenging to acknowledge that you, or someone you love, is addicted to gambling. Steve found this to be the case when he found gambling apps during a hospital stay following knee surgery. Steve had been a long-distance runner and missed the lifestyle and 'buzz' of competing in half-marathons. Bored, his daily bets soon escalated to betting several times a day across different apps.

Convinced that he would stop as soon as he could resume 'normal life' after recovery from surgery, Steve found that he was unable to give up gambling, eventually seeking therapy to support his recovery and asking his family for support. Steve's wife now controls the family finances and supports Steve's efforts to avoid 'urges and triggers'.

After the initial shock, his family also supported Steve, and he can call upon them if he feels that he may relapse. Steve has learnt that a relapse can be managed by asking for help; therapy has supported his determination to learn from his mistakes and develop self-awareness. 

Are you, or a loved one, addicted to gambling?

If you are unsure whether this describes yourself or someone you are concerned about, there are online self-assessment tools available including GamCare and PCGS: The Primary Care Gambling Service, NHS.

Gambling addiction

Here are some key aspects of gambling addiction:

  1. Inability to control gambling behaviour: People with gambling addiction find it extremely difficult or impossible to resist the impulse to gamble, even when they recognise the harmful consequences.
  2. Preoccupation with gambling: They often obsess over gambling, constantly thinking about their next opportunity to gamble, planning their gambling activities, or reliving past gambling experiences.
  3. Chasing losses: Individuals with gambling addiction often try to recover their losses by gambling more, a behaviour known as "chasing losses," which can lead to even more significant financial problems.
  4. Tolerance and escalation: Over time, they may need to gamble with increasing amounts of money or engage in riskier gambling to achieve the desired level of excitement or "high."
  5. Withdrawal symptoms: When attempting to cut back or stop gambling, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, anxiety, or depression.
  6. Lying and deception: They may lie to family members, friends, or colleagues about the extent of their gambling or attempt to conceal their gambling activities.
  7. Negative consequences: Despite the negative impact on their finances, relationships, jobs, or mental health, people with gambling addiction continue to gamble, often leading to significant personal and professional problems.

If you suspect that a loved one has a gambling addiction, what can you do to support them?

The first step is to prepare yourself for an honest and non-confrontational conversation. The person you are concerned about may feel ashamed or embarrassed, keen to avoid talking, denying an issue, or argumentative about the need to change. It may help to prepare yourself for the conversation: 

Self-care: preoccupation with your loved one's gambling issue may get in the way of looking after yourself, but this is just as important as helping the person with the gambling problem. To support yourself, continue with hobbies and interests, do what you enjoy, and maintain friendships. Find time to nurture yourself with regular, balanced meals, regular exercise, and practice sleep hygiene. Share your concerns with trusted friends and family, or find professional support from a therapist. Feelings of shame may feel like a barrier, but without support, it can feel overwhelming and impossible to get through this alone.

Educate yourself: Learn about gambling addiction, its causes, and its effects. Understanding the condition better will help you approach your loved one with empathy and patience. Someone may start gambling for fun, for social reasons if friends partake, for financial reasons if there are fantasies about lifestyle change, for the 'high', or to forget their worries. Understanding what motivates gambling doesn't absolve the person gambling of responsibility. Still, it may help you to gain a deeper insight into what motivated your loved one to start gambling and why it has become problematic.

Having a difficult conversation

You may have thought about saying something to your loved one about their gambling for a long time, concerned about the negative consequences of not doing something. Finding out if someone has a gambling addiction may feel daunting, so the following may help:

  • Find a time when you can talk in private and be calm: Prepare yourself for a full range of responses, from anger to relief, and for minimisation rationalisation of lying, blaming others, or denial. All may be initial reactions to uncomfortable feelings, such as shame.
  • Express concern: For their well-being and tell them you care about them and want to help.
  • Be open: Without blaming, be open about how their gambling impacts you and may impact others. It may help to stick to 'I' statements, such as 'when I found the hidden credit card bill, I felt helpless, angry, and frightened'. Explain what you feel. Being vulnerable yourself will help you and help your loved one to respond vulnerable.
  • Encourage professional help: Encourage your loved one to seek professional help from a licensed therapist or a support group like Gamblers Anonymous. Offer to assist them in finding resources and attending the first few sessions.
  • Set boundaries: Gambling addiction can lead to financial problems and strained relationships. Set clear boundaries about what behaviours you will and will not accept, such as not lending them money or bailing them out of debt.
  • Listen without judgment and with patience: Addiction is a difficult battle. Be patient, listen without judgment, and offer your love and support throughout their recovery journey.
  • Maintain self-care: Supporting someone with an addiction can be emotionally and mentally draining. Make sure to take care of your own well-being by seeking support from others, practising self-care, and setting healthy boundaries.
  • Encourage healthy activities: Suggest and engage in positive activities to help replace the time and energy previously spent on gambling.
  • Be prepared for setbacks: Recovery is not a linear process, and setbacks may occur. If a relapse happens, remain supportive and encourage your loved one to seek help again.
  • Attend support groups: Consider attending support groups for families and friends of gambling addicts, where you can learn from others in similar situations and gain valuable coping strategies.

Addiction recovery

Recovery from gambling addiction is a long-term process, and your loved one's commitment to change is essential. It may feel overwhelming and impossible to support your loved one without finding help for yourself. If you are struggling, please seek support for your mental health and well-being.

Having a weekly space to share your thoughts and concerns with a therapist may provide the support you need for yourself and help you continue supporting your loved one. Focusing on your well-being is essential, as it is easy to 'lose yourself' when supporting others. With patience, understanding, and support, you can help them overcome this addiction while focusing on your well-being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W10 & Gerrards Cross SL9
Written by Helen Hadden, Psychotherapist; psychodynamic & EMDR, adults. BPC, MBACP
London W10 & Gerrards Cross SL9

I am a psychotherapist working with adults using one-to-one talking therapy in the NHS and private practice. Working psychodynamically, I also use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing). Originally developed to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) now, EMDR is used to treat many issues, including anxiety and depression.

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