Substance Free Addiction: the correlation between gambling and mental health

Gambling addiction has featured prominently in the news recently. While it’s not usually considered a public health issue, but in the wake of the tragic events in Las Vegas, many experts have asked what role gambling addiction might have played in the tragedy.

In a 2013 court testimony, Stephen Paddock – the Vegas shooter, described himself as nocturnal, and exhibited an inflated sense of self-worth, referring to himself as the ‘biggest video poker player in the world.’ Whether or not Stephen Paddock had a problem with gambling is not up for debate, but the role his addiction played in the events that transpired on October 1st is worth investigating.

According to psychologist Dr. Phil Kronk, “individuals addicted to gambling often have a co-existing personality disorder.” Studies have also shown a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and gambling addiction. PTSD symptoms affect anywhere from 12.5 to 29 percent of problem gamblers.       A further shocking link between gambling and mental health shows 5% of all suicides in the USA are related to compulsive gambling, as are 17% of emergency room admissions for attempted suicides.

Gambling addiction often disproportionately affects already at-risk groups, including those suffering from feelings of depression and anxiety, and those already engaging in risky behaviours, such as alcohol abuse or drug use. In fact, studies have shown there is a clear connection between men and women who suffer from alcohol abuse and the likelihood of developing a compulsive gambling disorder.

Casinos, slot machines and gambling advertisements are all designed to take advantage of the psychological conditioning which is a huge part of gambling addiction. The process of repetition and reward brought about by our actions releases dopamine in the brain, the same thing that keeps users addicted to hard drugs like cocaine. Even a “near-miss” on a slot machine triggers the same areas in your brain as if you had won, helping keep players hooked. It’s predicted that 1 in 8 people who gamble will develop an addiction.

Put simply, gambling is a drug-free addiction. Even though there is no external chemical at work on the brain, the same neurological and physiological reactions are occurring. When interviewed, gambling addicts liken the experience to high produced by drugs. Like drug addicts, people suffering with gambling addiction develop a tolerance, when they can’t gamble or try to stop, they also exhibit the same signs of withdrawal; headaches, insomnia, panic attacks, anxiety, heart palpitations.

At a recent conference in China, Professor Bo J. Bernhard, executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute highlighted the dangers of ‘convenience gambling’ in bars and retail shopping districts, in comparison to heavily tourist-focused resorts like those found in Las Vegas. “Take Japan and its Pachinko parlors for example. Lots of machines, but no tourism and no job creation.” Bernhard said.

A recent survey by the Japanese government backs up the claim, it’s findings reported around 3.2 million Japanese have likely suffered from gambling addiction, and pachinko accounted for the most money spent on gambling, at an average of 58,000 yen per month.

Worldwide, the statistics are alarming. It’s estimated there are around 400,000 problem gamblers in the United Kingdom. Approximately 3 to 4 million American’s have a gambling problem.

Australia has seen the effects of convenience gambling on communities as well, a 2016 Government study illustrated the cost of pokie machines on families within the country’s poorer suburbs.

The problem is also affecting younger people in larger numbers, a 2010 US survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center indicated that the that the monthly use of mobile gambling sites among male college students had increased to 16%. A 2008 survey by the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute found that as many as 750,000 young people, between the ages of 14 and 21 had a gambling addiction in the US alone.

According to some experts, part of the problem lies in the ease of access that the internet has brought about. In the United Kingdom, the National Problem Gambling Clinic (NPGC) said 63% of its patients struggled with mobile gambling in 2016-17, compared to just 24% in 2013. Now, someone suffering from a gambling addiction can access a casino online from their computer or mobile device. Making it even easier for those trying to recover, to relapse.

Online gambling can be particularly difficult to monitor and has begun to infiltrate other forms of online-gaming. Take for example, e-sports betting – that’s placing bets on professionals playing computer games in front of live audiences. Or even ‘skins’ betting, roulette-style games on third-party sites that allow users to bet on the real-world value of in-game bonuses such as ‘skins’ for weapons and avatars. While this sort of gambling might initially seem innocent, the fact of the matter is it still activates the same dopamine receptors within the brain that are responsible for addictive behavior.

So far it seems education is the best way to tackle the scourge of gambling addiction, recent research from the University of Waterloo showed that rookie gamblers who were shown a short video about the ways slot machines disguise losses as wins had a better chance of avoiding developing an addictive behavior.

Approaching problem gambling as a health issue must also include the cooperation of medical professionals. General practitioners will routinely ask patients about smoking, drinking, even drug-use to make a diagnosis, yet gambling is not something that is often discussed. Changing the perception of gambling addiction as a health issue, the same as any other addiction, could go a long way towards minimizing the harm that it can cause.

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