Gambling addiction is, without a doubt, an epidemic in this country. It is a behavioural addiction, defined as the uncontrollable urge to gamble continuously, despite all negative and harmful consequences.

How many people are affected by gambling addiction?

According to recent figures, there are 340,000 adults suffering from gambling addiction in the UK and a further 2 million are ‘at risk’. A BBC Panorama investigation which aired last week called ‘Addicted to Gambling’, highlighted the extent of the problem: whilst the betting industry is booming and making millions every year, more and more lives are being lost to this all-consuming illness.

Indeed, there are between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides each year, a minimum of one every working day. Added to this, gambling addicts are 3-4 times more likely to attempt to kill themselves than someone addicted to drugs or alcohol.

How is gambling addiction classified?

Gambling addiction is now recognised as an addiction akin to any substance addiction, but these changes have only been made recently. It was only in 2013 that the disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), reclassified from an ‘impulse-control disorder’ to one of the ‘substance-related and addictive disorders’ – the same thoughts, feelings and behaviours are associated with gambling as with drug or alcohol addiction and it activates the brain’s reward system in the same way.

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What’s the science behind gambling addiction?

So what is it exactly that makes gambling so addictive? How can something be simply a bit of fun for so many – a game of poker on a Friday night or a bet at the races – whilst for others it progresses to a serious, potentially fatal addiction? The debate as to the root cause of gambling disorder remains open, but for most people it’s the result of multiple and complex factors.

Genetic predispositions play a large role, as does the way gambling activates the dopamine reward system in the brain. When a person engages in activities necessary for survival, such as eating, drinking or having sex, the brain produces the neurotransmitter dopamine. When drinking, taking drugs, or gambling, the amount of dopamine released is significantly increased.

And while different gamblers pursue different types of gambling activity and have different experiences, the common theme is that much of the reward comes not from winning, but rather from the possibility of winning. It is the anticipation of the reward, the perceived pleasure from the win you will make, which produces the most dopamine in the brain. This conditions the brain to want more and more, therefore motivating the addict to repeatedly pursue gambling despite any negative consequences.

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How does a gambling addiction develop, and what can happen?

As gambling becomes the new norm for the individual, a gambling addiction develops. Long term changes to brain function mean they will develop a tolerance: the brain gets used to the gambling activity and isn’t as stimulated as it was initially. Hence more and more gambling is required to produce the same dopamine levels and feelings of pleasure as in the early days. This is why addicts will gamble excessively, chasing the initial highs they felt, but due to the tolerance that has developed no amount of gambling will produce the same rewards. And so the cycle continues.

The BBC’s Panorama investigation also highlighted the progressive nature of addiction, and how things only get worse over time. As the illness takes hold, what someone may initially have deemed unacceptable behaviour, quickly becomes acceptable. One man who appeared on the programme had gambled away his family home, leaving his wife and daughter homeless. It may sound shocking, but this is the reality of the illness.

These are the lengths people go to, to feed their addiction and satisfy the compulsive urge to use, drink, or gamble, which takes priority over everything else in life. The thought of gambling outweighs all over rational thoughts, and the impulse is stronger than any consequences that the addict may face in the process.

The devastation to the individual’s life can be huge. Earlier this year, ex-England footballer Paul Merson openly shared his struggles with addiction on ITV’s Harry’s Heroes – he had lost millions in the 1990s to drugs, alcohol and gambling problems, but revealed the illness has once again taken hold:

“Life’s fallen apart again with gambling…I’ve completely lost control again…I’m digging a hole and I can’t get out of it.”

He describes gambling addiction as “the worst addiction in the world” and emphasised how it’s exactly the same as cocaine addiction or any other drug.

Help is available - gambling rehab and treatment

Some progress has been made to make more professional help available, with the UK’s biggest gambling firms pledging £60 million to fund gambling addiction treatment this year. The owners of powerful players such as Ladbrokes Coral, Bet 365 and William Hill will increase their voluntary levy on profits to 1%, amid criticism that the industry doesn’t spend enough on gambling treatment. The companies agreed to spend around £100 million on treatment over the next four years.

It was also announced this year that the first NHS gambling rehab clinic for children would be rolled out: according to the Gambling Commission at least 55,000 children in the UK are classed as having a gambling problem.

The good news is that help is available and recovery is possible. For most people suffering, a stay in a residential rehab clinic is the best option: engaging in various therapies to address the underlying psychological factors that motivate the addictive behaviour, will enable you to heal and move forwards.

There is no shame in admitting you have a gambling addiction. Quite the opposite. Acknowledging you have a problem and that you need help is one of the bravest and kindest things you can do for yourself, because you are giving yourself the chance to recover. You are giving yourself the freedom to explore who you are without your addiction, what you enjoy and what you want out of life. It’s a cliché but it’s true: life is short. Don’t waste yours.

Private gambling rehab with Providence Projects

If you’re reading this, chances are you think you or a loved one may have a problem with gambling addiction. Please feel free to give us a call today on 01202 393030, and our skilled addiction counsellors will be on hand to talk through your situation and how we can help.

Alternatively, learn more about our private gambling rehab services. We provide comprehensive gambling rehab programmes for people from all over the UK. Remember, recovery is possible and there is a way out of addiction.

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