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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Problem gambling

Problem gambling

About this leaflet

This leaflet is for:


  • anyone who is worried about their gambling
  • the family, partner and friends of anyone whose gambling has become a problem.

In this leaflet you can find out about:


  • Is problem gambling common?
  • Is my gambling a problem?
  • How can someone lose control of their gambling?
  • Living with a problem gambler 
  • The risks
  • What help can I get?
  • Further information and links.


How common is problem gambling?

  Is it a problem for me?

Many of us like to place the odd bet or play the lottery - but it’s only a problem for about 6 people in every 1000.

Across the world it seems to be common:

  • In men – but this might just be because women gamble less than men.
  • In teenagers and young adults - but problems of this sort can start at any age. Children as young as 7 may find it difficult to control the amount of time they spend on computer games. Older people may have too much time on their hands.
  • If someone else in your family – particularly one of your parents - is a problem gambler. This may be partly due to genes but can be learnt – by seeing a parent gamble or being taught to gamble by them.
  • In people who work in casinos, betting shops or amusement arcades.
  • In certain types of gambling:

* Internet gambling

* Video poker

* Dice games

* Playing sports for   money

* High-risk stocks

* Roulette


Answer 'yes' or 'no' to each of these 10 questions:

  • Do I spend a lot of time thinking about gambling?
  • Am I spending larger amounts of money on my gambling?
  • Have I tried to cut down or stop gambling - but not been able to?
  • Do I get restless or irritable if I try to cut down my gambling?
  • Do I gamble to escape from life’s difficulties or to cheer myself up?
  • Do I carry on playing after losing money - to try and win it back?
  • Have I lied to other people about how much time or money I spend gambling ?
  • Have I ever stolen money to fund my gambling?
  • Has my gambling affected my relationships or my job?
  • Do I get other people to lend me money when I have lost?

If you have answered 'yes'

  • Just once - Maybe a problem - This one thing may be enough of a problem to need help.
  • Three times - Problem gambling - Your gambling probably feels out of control - think about getting help.
  • Five or more times - Pathological gambling - Your gambling is probably affecting every part of your life - get help.



How do you lose control of your gambling?


Living with a problem gambler

You may gamble:

  • to forget about responsibilities
  • to feel better when you feel depressed or sad
  • to fill your time when bored (especially if not working)
  • when you drink or use drugs
  • when you get angry with others - or yourself.

Or, you may have:

  • started gambling early – some people start as young as 7 or 8
  • never been able to control your gambling
  • one or both parents who are problem gamblers.

The first thing is to decide to get help -  you can then work out whether you are ready to stop or just want to control your gambling better. Many people just want to control their gambling, but then decide to stop completely.


  • Being married to or a partner of a problem gambler – or being their parent or child - is hard and can be distressing.
  • Your loved one will probably have tried to hide the size of the problem from you, while they have at the same time borrowed or stolen to pay off debts.
  • If, with the help of the 10 questions above, you can see that gambling is a problem for someone in your family, it's best to be honest with him or her about it. They need to know about the pain and trouble they are causing other people and that help is there for them.
  • If your gambling relative doesn't take any notice, you can get support for yourself from one of the services listed at the end of the leaflet. There are groups and individual sessions to support family members.

Problem gamblers are more likely than other people to:

  • become depressed
  • have alcohol or drug problems
  • commit suicide out of desperation because of their feelings of being trapped by their debts
  • be separated or divorced
  • have committed a crime to support their gambling.

It's better to get help before you run into trouble.


What sort of help is out there?

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)


What sort of help is out there?

12 Step Programmes and Medication

Research has shown that CBT can:

  • reduce the number of days a person gambles
  • reduce the amount of money they lose
  • help a gambler to stay away from gambling once they have stopped.

How does CBT work?

If you are a problem gambler, you will think differently from other people about your betting. You will tend to believe that:

  • you are more likely to win than you would expect by chance
  • in a game with random numbers, like roulette, certain numbers are more likely to come up than others
  • winning twice in a row means that you are on a 'winning streak' – so you bet larger and larger sums
  • you are more likely to win at a game of chance if you are familiar with it
  • certain rituals can bring you luck
  • having lost, you can somehow win back your losses by gambling more.

CBT is given in around 10 one-hour sessions. The sessions focus on these ways of thinking, but also on how you feel and behave when you want to bet or when you are gambling. CBT helps you to work out more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. A diary helps you to keep track of your improvement. In the months following treatment, follow-up CBT sessions in a group seem to help people stay away from gambling longer.

How does CBT compare with other treatments?

We don’t know yet - there have not been enough large studies to be clear about this.



12 Step Programmes

This is an approach which assumes that a dependence on drink or gambling is a disease and that the best people to support you are those who have had similar experiences.

Regular meetings are held in which people can share the problems they have had and the ways in which they have overcome them. They also have a 'buddy' system, where each member has another member whom they can contact if they feel that they are about to drink or gamble again.

The 12 Step fellowship, Gamblers Anonymous, offers meetings throughout the UK and many problem gamblers find these meetings helpful. You may also need practical help:

  • Managing your debts
  • Dealing with family problems
  • Treat other psychological/psychiatric problems, e.g. depression.


No medication is licensed for the treatment of problem gambling in the UK but antidepressants can be prescribed to help with low mood.



Further info <> References

About a third of problem gamblers will recover on their own without treatment and – about 2 in 3 will continue to have problems, which tend to get worse.

Don’t wait until life does not seem worth living. If you get help, you will feel better and avoid many problems with your life and health.

You can refer yourself by calling or emailing the contacts below:





  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (4th ed, text rev) Washington, DC.
  • British Gambling Prevalence Survey (2007). Gambling Commission, UK.
  • Black D et al (2003) Quality of life and family history in pathological gambling. Journal of Nervous  and Mental Disease, 191, 124-126.
  • Blaszczynsky AP et al (1991) A comparison of relapsed and non-relapsed abstinent pathological gamblers following behavioural treatment. British Journal of Addiction, 86, 1485-1489.
  • Griffiths MD (1990) The acquisition, development, and maintenance of fruit machine gambling in adolescents. Journal of Gambling Studies, 6, 193-204.
  • Ladouceur R et al (2002) Understanding and treating pathological gambling. New York, Wiley.
  • Petry N (2005) Pathological Gambling. American Psychological Association.
  • Shaffer HJ, Bilt JV and Hall MN (1999) Gambling, drinking, smoking and other health risk activities among casino employees. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 36, 365-378.
  • Wohl MJA et al (2002) The effects of near wins and near losses on self-perceived personal luck and subsequent gambling behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 184-191.
  • (2007) National Survey of Gambling

This leaflet was produced by the RCPsych Public Education Editorial Board.

Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms

Original Author: Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones

Editorial Board: Dr Jim Bolton, Dr Martin Briscoe, Dr Jonathan Dewhurst, Dr Jennifer Drife, Deborah Hart, Dr Ashok Kumar, Dr Ros Ramsay, Dr Ajoy Thachil

Expert review: Faculty of Addictions' Users and Carers Group

Illustration by Lo Cole

©  March  2017 Royal College of Psychiatrists

Due for review March 2020.



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