Jen Rini, The News Journal 11:15 a.m. EST December 16, 2014
Psychologist Susan Edgar knows firsthand how difficult it is to recognize the signs and symptoms of a gambling addiction.
In her seven years as deputy director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, she's counseled, mentored and sympathized with gambling addicts and their families.
But even with that experience, her own father's gambling addiction completely blindsided her.
"I found out my father had a gambling problem about five years ago," Edgar said. When she asked her mother why she didn't tell her, her mother's response was shocking.
"I didn't want to talk bad about your father," was the answer, Edgar explained. "She saw more shame attached to the gambling than to the drinking."
The shame and stigma attached to compulsive gambling has placed it low on the totem pole when it comes to addictive vices.
It's not a drug after all, so why can't a person just stop?
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But a compulsive need to gamble is not just a bad moral habit, said Marc Richman, assistant director of Community Mental Health and Addiction Services for the state. It's a risky, uncontrollable urge.
Though gambling contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's budget, it has the power to destroy a person's fortune, and also their well-being,
"We know from the science that folks who have gambling addictions look very similar to those who have other addictions. I know it is a relatively young science, but there's more and more attention being paid to it now," Richman said.
Though a person may not be physically ingesting an addictive substance, he or she is still getting high, Edgar said.
"When the gambler is in action it doesn't matter if they are winning or losing. It's the doing that causes the dopamine rush," she said.
Edgar, Richman and Arlene Simon, executive director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, give us the rundown on what gambling addiction is and how to get help.
How does someone become addicted to gambling?
"What makes a gambling addiction such an insidious addiction, I think more so than drugs and alcohol, is you don't see it. You know someone is drinking and you know they are doing drugs.
Unfortunately (with gambling) most times you get to totally rock bottom before you look for help," Simon said.
Simon also lived with a family member with a serious gambling addiction.
"I lived with this person and had no clue whatsoever. You couldn't do anything. That person hits rock bottom," she said.
A gambling addiction can be genetic as well, as can heroin or alcohol addiction.
"I won't put myself in a gambling situation because I know I am a sitting duck," Edgar said.
Gambling addictions often co-occur with other mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse, Richman added. That can cause an individual to become dysfunctional.
Lately, Edgar said that counselors with the council have found that most gambling addicts have a history of loss that initiates the gambling. People turn to gambling as a release after they've lost a job or a loved one. Most often it's after experiencing a death, Edgar said. A lot of older women see a casino as a place where they can be treated with respect and can feel like they are in pleasant company.
"Where else is a person who is 70 going to go for entertainment," she said.
It's become a serious problem with senior citizens, added Simon.
"They are lonely. They get entrapped in gambling so innocently and it's very difficult because they are so embarrassed. Consequently many of them are up against the wall," she said.
Edgar's quick to note, though, that the council is not anti-gambling.
"Gambling is entertainment. There's only a small percentage of people who get into trouble," she said.
What are the signs and symptoms of a gambling addiction?
Edgar said that council asks people to answer these questions if they are worried they have a gambling addiction:
• Do you play longer than you intend?
• Are you spending more money than you intend?
• Are you using money that should be used for necessities?
• Are you maxing out your credit cards?
• Are you preoccupied with it?
• If you don't do it do you feel bad?
If a person answers most of those questions with a 'yes', they have more than just a fondness for gambling.
Money drives the addiction.
"One thing we know is you cannot drink yourself into prosperity, but people think you can gamble yourself into prosperity," Edgar said.
One of the symptoms of gambling addiction is "chasing." People will bet more money to see if they can win back the money they lost. Compulsive gamblers also are motivated by the thought that they can break even or come out from under the money rut.
They may start to solicit family members for money or steal money to feed the addiction. As with any addiction, people will begin to be withdrawn, depressed and secretive. Family members may think a spouse or loved one is having an affair.
"You don't go to sleep, you don't overdose. People ruminate on what happens. You've taken money that doesn't belong to you, gone to (a casino) and blown it all," Edgar said.
"The depression is phenomenal. How do you recover $100,000 that you owe? You've lost your home. You've lost everything."
A person cannot escape that reality.
"With alcohol you eventually pass out; with gambling that doesn't happen," she said.
On top of that, relationships tend to be unmendable once financial ruin is involved, added Richman.
"In some cases relationships are so disrupted and damaged that the individual needs tremendous support and the support is not there anymore. If you burn so many bridges, how can you expect the supporting network to stay," he said.
What are some common gambling games?
Blackjack, Texas Hold-em, craps, online poker, sports betting, scratch-off tickets, bingo, Mahjong, video lottery, slot machines.
Can a gambling addict go through withdrawal?
Yes. People become anxious, depressed, distressed and irritable.
"You feel like you can chew on the counter. You want something, but don't know what you want," Edgar said.
Who is addicted to gambling?
"Gambling, like substance abuse, crosses over all socioeconomic status," Richman said. "It's across the board."
Gambling can detrimentally affect anyone, but Edgar said that married, employed white males, usually between the ages of 40 and 60, come in for treatment.
Is there a difference between problem gambling and gambling addiction?
Up until last year, compulsive gambling was characterized as an "impulse control disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible for mental health professionals, along with compulsive hair pulling and pyromania.
Now in the latest edition it is considered a substance-related and addictive disorder, which Edgar sees as great progress, and said will change treatment in the future.
"It's not just a matter of impulse," she said.
People may go through a period where they choose to go to a casino and bet some of their weekly earnings, but it's not necessarily pathological gambling.
"A problem gambler is someone who gets into a situation where it creates difficulty in their life, where it interferes. If they decided they are not going to do it, they can do that," she said.
If you have a gambling addiction, you can't just shut down the urge.
"Well, wouldn't that be easy if we can just turn it off?" added Richman.
What treatment is available for someone with a gambling addiction?
The Delaware Council on Gambling Problems offers up to 20 sessions of counseling with no cost to the person. People can also seek help through private practice or through Gamblers Anonymous.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is most effective, Edgar said.
Therapy can be one-on-one or in a group setting. People can discuss triggers, how the gambling has affected their families and issues that exist alongside the grambling such as drinking. There's no specific medication for gambling addiction, but a person can take antidepressants or medication for anxiety.
Richman said it's not yet known whether prescribed opiate treatments like suboxone and methadone would help curb a gambling addiction, like it can do for heroin.
"Anybody can quit anything for a brief period of time. Doing it alone is very, very difficult," she said.
Rebuilding trust within a family is crucial. And going forward, families have to understand that gambling is an addiction, not just a bad choice, emphasized Simon. Like with any addition, gambling is a family disease.
"There's hope. People do get better. It's a matter of sustaining treatment and continuing to get therapy and support," Richman said.
Gambling Helpline: 888-850-8888