For every person who has a problem with gambling, it is estimated that another five to ten people are also negatively affected. A person’s gambling behaviour can have social, physical and financial implications for those who are close to them. It is common for partners, children, parents, workmates and friends of gamblers to feel the impact of someone’s problem gambling.
How to recognise the issue
Gambling is heavily promoted and widely accepted around the world and more people are exposed to it today than ever before. People gamble for many reasons – for excitement, for the thrill of winning, or to be social. For some, though, gambling can also become an addictive or compulsive activity.
Gambling is a problem when it harms…
- mental or physical health
- work, school or other activities
- relationships with family and friends.
Gambling can be an escape from a stressful period or event such as illness or divorce, or a way of trying to cope with anxiety caused by anything from relationship issues to money problems. Some may start gambling because they are lonely and crave company. Addictive behaviour is often related to an experience of trauma of some kind.
When someone turns to gambling as a way of coping at a vulnerable time in their life it can lead to problem gambling. Young people (those under 18) and people who’ve grown up in a home with a parent or grandparent with gambling issues also have a higher risk than others of developing a gambling problem. Although there are no drugs or substances involved in gambling, problem gambling has a similar effect on the brain as drug and alcohol addictions.
How do you know if someone has a problem with gambling?
- unexplained debt or borrowing
- money or assets disappearing
- numerous loans
- unpaid bills or disconnection notices
- lack of food in the house
- losing wallets or money regularly
- missing financial statements
- secret bank accounts, loans or credit cards
- moodiness, unexplained anger
- decreased contact with friends
- family complaints about being emotionally shut out
- avoidance of social events
- control or manipulation by threat, lies or charm
- secretiveness about activities
- disappearing for amounts of time that they cannot account for
- having no time for everyday activities
- overusing sick days and days off
- spending increased amounts of time on studying gambling
- taking an unusual amount of time for tasks (for example, taking two hours to get milk from the corner store).
How you can help someone with a gambling problem
Recovering from problem gambling can take hard work and may require encouragement. Many people with gambling problems are able to turn their lives around because of support from people close to them. Help can be provided to support with information and advice specifically suited to your situation.
When you don’t have a gambling problem yourself, it can be difficult to understand why someone with a problem doesn’t just stop. Problem gambling has a similar effect on the brain as drug and alcohol addictions, which explains why just trying to stop isn’t usually enough to make it happen. It also explains why many people have to try several times before successfully stopping.
If someone close to you has a gambling problem, you can’t change their behaviour or force them to stop, but you can take time to support them. You can make it clear that their gambling is affecting others, that they need to get help, that there is support available, and that it works.
Children and gambling
A parent’s problematic gambling can have a serious impact on their children. Studies have shown* that children of people with gambling problems are far more likely to have gambling problems themselves later in life. It is important to find a way to support children who may be affected by a family member’s gambling. Although the child may not feel able to speak about it, a parent’s gambling can leave them feeling isolated, angry and depressed by the often chaotic and dysfunctional situation at home.
In extreme cases, gambling may mean that children…
- don’t have enough to eat
- aren’t provided with new clothes or shoes when they need them
- miss out on activities such as sport, school excursions, camps or music lessons
- have trouble with their studies
- have to take on more ‘adult’ responsibilities, such as looking after younger children
- witness increased arguments and tension
- experience family violence
- experience family breakdown
- experience homelessness.
To minimise the effect on children and to support them emotionally:
- encourage them to talk freely about their feelings, but let them do this at their own pace
- assure them that they are not responsible
- try to keep them engaged in family activities
- try not to over-involve them in helping to solve financial and other problems caused by gambling
- ensure they understand that the family may need to budget, but that they will be okay
- acknowledge that it is the behaviour of the person gambling that is the problem, rather than the person
* The Effect of Pathological Gambling on Families, Marriages, and Children, Martha Shaw et al, Cambridge University Press, 2014