Gambling Addiction: Definition and Features


Gambling and access to gambling facilities have been part of American moral and political debate for more than a hundred years. Now, with widespread Internet access providing a gateway to a wider array of games than ever before, it is important that average citizens understand the feature of problem gambling and gambling addiction, and learn to recognize the signs in themselves or loved ones.


As with many types of addiction, it can be tricky to precisely define what constitutes a gambling problem. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), gambling becomes problematic only once it begins to negatively affect one or more parts of a person's work, family life, or personal relationships. This population can be further divided in "problem gamblers" and "pathological gamblers".

Problem Gambling

A recent survey showed that 86 percent of Americans have gambled at some point in their lives. Of this 86 percent, though, only about two or three percent are what would be called "problem gamblers". These are people who may exhibit one or several symptoms of a gambling addiction, but who have a lower risk of their problem deteriorating into full-blown addiction.

Pathological Gambling

Accounting for only one percent of gamblers, those with a pathological condition can be recognized by the severity of their symptoms and how strongly those symptoms affect their lives. These signs can include the following:

  • Gambling longer than anticipated
  • Going broke from gambling
  • Wagering money you don't have
  • Not paying bills or other obligations to have gambling money
  • Breaking the law to continue gambling
  • Feeling guilty or suicide after gambling
  • Making one or more unsuccessful attempts to quit gambling


Part of the reason gambling addiction is less often addressed than other forms is because of the enduring misconceptions surrounding it. The first, most dangerous assumption is that gambling addiction is not a "real addiction". This is untrue; gambling addiction can have the same negative consequences on a person's life as drug or alcohol abuse, and can be just as hard a habit to break.

Another myth that pops up is that some types of gambling are worse than others. In fact, research has shown that gambling addiction arises from the individual's personality, meaning that the type of game has little bearing on whether a person will become addicted to it. Similarly, the gambler need not gamble every day for his behavior to still be considered an addiction. Even occasional gambling binges can be financially and emotionally devastating, and should still be considered signs of a problem.

Effects of Problem Gambling

Gambling addiction, like drug and alcohol abuse, hurts both the gambler and his or her family. The mental health effects of gambling are wide-ranging, from depression and anxiety to contemplation of criminal behavior and obsession or frustration when away from the table. Family members of addicts tend to be at higher risk of physical and verbal abuse, and the financial consequences of gambling losses can take years to overcome.

Prevention and Treatment

As gambling addiction has become more noticed and accepted as a legitimate mental health concern, more avenues of treatment have opened up. As with other addictions, the most important factor is to catch the problem early on and take steps to address it. Many organizations exist to hope gamblers and their families cope with the effects of addiction. Gamblers Anonymous is common and widespread, and most medium to large-size communities will have additional programs in place. Check a phone book or online for support groups near you. Mental health professionals will also be able to point you in the right direction.

Being addicted to gambling can be just as disastrous as being addicted to anything else, but the resources exist to get help to those who need it, and gambling addiction can be overcome.


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