Gambling disorder

This information is for anyone who is worried about their gambling, or knows someone whose gambling has become a problem.

Disclaimer

This leaflet provides information, not advice.

The content in this leaflet is provided for general information only. It is not intended to, and does not, mount to advice which you should rely on. It is not in any way an alternative to specific advice.

You must therefore obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this leaflet.

If you have questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider without delay.

If you think you are experiencing any medical condition you should seek immediate medical attention from a doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

Although we make reasonable efforts to compile accurate information in our leaflets and to update the information in our leaflets, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in this leaflet is accurate, complete or up to date.

Gambling disorder is a repeated pattern of gambling behaviour where someone:

  • feels they have lost control
  • continues to gamble despite negative consequences and
  • sees gambling as more important to them than any other interest or activity.

Gambling disorder is also sometimes called compulsive gambling, problem gambling or gambling addiction.

Gambling disorder can have a big impact on your personal and family life, your work and education, and the things you enjoy.

In the UK, gambling is a relatively common activity that people do for fun. However, some people do find it difficult to keep their gambling under control.

Roughly 1 in every 100 people have a gambling disorder. A further 4 to 7 people in every 100 gamble at risky levels that can become a problem in the future.

Most people are aware of gambling through the lottery, on sports or on casino games. However, some people can also develop a problem gambling through investments and trading or spending money in mobile or online games.

Often people don’t recognise that these are also a type of gambling and struggle to acknowledge that they have lost control.

As with all mental health problems, there is not one clear cause of gambling disorder. There are biological, genetic, environmental and psychological reasons why someone might develop a gambling disorder.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop a gambling disorder. However, we know that in some people the problem may be more likely to develop. Some factors that might make you more likely to develop a gambling disorder include:

  • Gender – If you are a man, you are four times more likely to have a gambling disorder, although the rate of women with a gambling disorder is rising.
  • Ethnicity and race – If you are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background you are seven times more likely to have a gambling disorder.
  • Family history – If someone in your family has a history of gambling disorder or other addictions, particularly if they are your parents.
  • Personal history of gambling – If you experienced or witnessed a big win at a young age or early on in your gambling.
  • Drugs and alcohol – If you drink heavily or use illegal drugs.
  • Mental health – If you have other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders or psychotic disorders.
  • Place of work – If you work in a gambling premises, such as a casino, betting shop or arcade.
  • Financial difficulties – If you are struggling financially or are unemployed.
  • Physical health – If you have poor physical health or multiple physical health conditions.
  • Medication – If you are taking medications for your physical or mental health that affect dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical in our brains. Examples of these medications include Levodopa for Parkinson’s disease, or Aripiprazole for symptoms of psychosis or mania.

If you are worried you might have a gambling disorder, answering the following questions may help. Think about your experiences over the last 12 months, and answer the following questions, choosing a score from 0 to 3.

1. Have you bet more than you could really afford to lose?

Never (0), Sometimes (1), Most of the time (2), Almost always (3) 

2. Have people criticised your betting or told you you had a gambling problem, regardless of whether or not you thought it was true?

Never (0), Sometimes (1), Most of the time (2), Almost always (3)

3. Have you felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?

Never (0), Sometimes (1), Most of the time (2), Almost always (3)

Add up the numbers you chose for each question and score yourself below.

Scoring:
0 = Non-problem gambler
1 = Low-risk gambler
2-3 = Moderate-risk gambler
4+ = Problem gambler

If you scored four or more, you should seek support from your GP or a gambling treatment provider (listed below) as your score indicates you may have a gambling disorder.

People with a gambling disorder are more likely than other people to experience the following harms:

Financial harms

These include:

  • overdue utility bills
  • borrowing from family, friends or loan sharks
  • large debts
  • pawning or selling possessions
  • eviction or repossession
  • loan defaults
  • committing illegal acts like fraud, theft or embezzlement to finance gambling
  • bankruptcy
  • a poor credit history.

Family harms

These include:

  • being preoccupied with gambling so normal family life becomes difficult
  • increased arguments over money and debts
  • emotional and physical abuse or neglect towards loved ones
  • relationship problems, and separation or divorce.

Health harms

These include:

  • low self-esteem
  • stress-related disorders
  • anxiety, worry or mood swings
  • poor sleep and appetite
  • substance misuse
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts and attempts.

School/college/work harms

These include:

  • poor school, college or work performance
  • difficulty maintaining a job
  • missing days, calling in sick or struggling to focus on or complete tasks
  • expulsion or dismissal.

If you recognise any of these harms in your own behaviour, you should try to seek help.

If you think you might have a gambling disorder, the best thing to do first is to get help. Once you have done this, you can work out whether you are ready to stop or want to learn to control your gambling instead. Many people who want to control their gambling later decide to stop completely when they start to seek support.

Controlled gambling can be hard. Once gambling becomes a problem for someone it can be hard for them to maintain control and not return to gambling problematically. This is similar to other addictive behaviours, such as alcohol or drug dependence.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of talking therapy. It helps people to manage their difficulties by supporting them to find more helpful ways of thinking and behaving.

Evidence shows that if you have a gambling disorder, you will often think differently from other people about gambling. You might believe that:

  • you are more likely to win than other people
  • 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'
  • 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 win back your losses by gambling more.

Research has shown that CBT can help you find more helpful ways to think and behave. It can also get you to think about a life outside of gambling, and:

  • reduce the number of days you spend gambling
  • reduce the amount of money you lose and
  • help you to stay away from gambling for longer once you have stopped.

CBT for gambling is typically provided in eight one-hour sessions, either individually or in a group. In CBT, you will:

  • learn strategies to reduce your opportunities to gamble
  • manage your cravings and triggers
  • challenge some of your gambling-related thoughts.

There are often tasks to complete in between the sessions to help build on the topics covered in therapy.

Medication

Naltrexone is a type of medication commonly used to treat alcohol and opioid addiction. We now know that there is good evidence that it can be helpful in managing a gambling disorder.

Naltrexone can be particularly helpful for people who have tried psychological therapy but have been unable to stop and still experience a strong urge to gamble. It can help people to reduce their gambling and to stay away from gambling.

The CNWL National Problem Gambling Clinic can prescribe Naltrexone, following an assessment by a psychiatrist. GPs do not usually prescribe Naltrexone. However, GPs may be able to continue a prescription after it has been started by a psychiatrist.

Other mental health conditions are common in people with a gambling disorder. If this is the case, medication such as antidepressants can be prescribed. Once the mental health condition is better managed, the gambling disorder can also improve.

12 Step Programmes

12 Step Programmes, such as Gambler’s Anonymous, assume that a dependence on gambling or alcohol is a disease. They believe that the best people to support you are those who have had similar experiences.

Regular meetings are held where members share their problems and the ways they have overcome them. Meetings are offered throughout the UK and many people with gambling disorders find these helpful.

Additional support

You may also need practical help, such as:

  • managing your debts
  • dealing with family problems or
  • treating other psychological/psychiatric problems.

If this is the case, you can receive support from your GP or a debt management charity, such as StepChange.

About 1 in 3 people with a gambling disorder will recover on their own, without treatment. About 2 in 3 will continue to have problems, which tend to get worse.

There are many reasons why someone might not get help for their gambling disorder.

Often people with gambling disorders can struggle to recognise their gambling as a problem or may focus more on the positive aspects, such as winning money or socialising. Even if someone recognises their gambling as a problem, the following things might get in the way of them getting support:

  • stigma
  • being embarrassed
  • not wanting others to find out
  • being in debt and worrying about the consequences.

Women, people from poorer backgrounds and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are the least likely to seek support for their gambling disorder. Research shows this is often due to:

  • not knowing where to get support
  • stigma
  • the cost or time taken to access or travel to a treatment centre.

It is important to ask for professional help if you have a gambling disorder. In the meantime, here are some simple and practical measures to reduce gambling:

1. Limit the amount of money you spend gambling

  • Set a limit from the start on how much you are willing to spend in a session or in a week, and stick to it.
  • Leave credit/cash cards at home when you go out to gamble.
  • Set withdrawal limits on your bank account.
  • On pay day, aim to pay all your bills first or transfer money out of your account to a savings account.
  • Sign up to a bank that offers a gambling block on your bank account, such as Barclays or Monzo.

2. Sign up to a self-exclusion service

When you have unlimited access to gambling services it is hard to resist the temptation to gamble. Online and in-person gambling services make it possible for people to block their access to gambling. Below are some examples:

Online
GAMSTOP – GAMSTOP lets you put controls in place to restrict your online gambling activities.
Gamban – Gamban helps you block access to online gambling on all your devices.

Betting shops
Multi-Operator Self-Exclusion Service (MOSES), Tel: 0800 294 2060 – MOSES allows people to self-exclude from betting shops.

Casinos
Self Enrolment National Self Exclusion scheme (SENSE) – SENSE allows people to self-exclude from casinos in the UK. You can also speak to the manager at your local casino

Bingo
Bingo Association – The Bingo Industry Self-Exclusion Scheme allows people to self-exclude from bingo halls in the UK. You can also speak to the manager at your local bingo hall.

Arcades
You can call 020 7730 644 to self-exclude from amusement arcades or speak to the manager at your local arcade.

Lottery
National Lottery – The National Lottery offers ways to control your gambling, including limiting your spending and play, session reminders, and keeping track of or pausing your play.

You can also self-exclude from other local lottery services, such as the Postcode Lottery, which you can find out more about on their websites.

3. Reduce the amount of time that you gamble

  • Set yourself a limit on how many times a week you will gamble.
  • Avoid those "I'll just have a quick go" scenarios.
  • Set an alarm on your watch or phone to remind you to stop.
  • Walk away once you have reached your agreed time spent gambling.

4. Don't view gambling as a way of making money

  • Always remember that you are buying entertainment.
  • Always be prepared to lose. If you win, know that it will happen by chance.
  • Never spend your savings or investments on gambling.
  • Ask friends and family not to lend you money even if you ask them.

5. Spend time doing other activities

  • Spend more quality time with family or friends.
  • Take up a new hobby or interest, or revisit one that you enjoyed before gambling took over.
  • Join a social group or organise events with friends who do not gamble.
  • Talk to others about your worries or concerns.

Being close to someone with a gambling disorder can be very difficult. You might have lots of different feelings, including hurt, mistrust, sadness and worry about the future. You might have been financially impacted too and feel anxious about how to manage.

Depending on your relationship, conversations about gambling can feel tricky or unsafe. Sometimes the person you care about won’t want or be able to talk about how they are coping and whether they are still gambling. Or you might find that your feelings, for example anger, get in the way of having a helpful conversation.

If you know someone with a gambling disorder, you can:

  • get help for your feelings and give yourself the opportunity to talk through the dilemmas you may be facing
  • increase your knowledge of gambling and its treatment
  • get support to think about the different ways of responding to the person you care about
  • protect your finances and get support if you are struggling financially
  • get support for other members of your family who might also be impacted, such as children.

By getting support for yourself, you will be in a better position to support the person in your life who is gambling. You will then be able to help them to make the changes they want to.

Some of the services in the next section can offer support to people who know someone with a gambling disorder. They include:

  • counselling sessions
  • family support groups, which can offer information and be a way for you to get emotional and practical support
  • family and couples therapy, to help you think about how your relationships have been affected and find a way forward.

Do not wait until things get worse. By reaching out for help, you can take the first steps to managing your gambling and start to feel more in control.

All the following services provide free support to help you cut down or stop gambling. They may also be able to offer support to people who know someone who has a gambling disorder:

CNWL National Problem Gambling Clinic – The National Problem Gambling Clinic is a specialist NHS service that treats people with gambling disorders living in England and Wales who are aged 16 and over. The service consists of doctors, nurses, psychologists, family therapists and peer support workers. The core clinical team at the clinic have a combined 30 years of experience in the management and treatment of gambling disorders.

Tel: 020 7381 7722
Email: gambling.cnwl@nhs.net

Northern Gambling Clinic – The Northern Gambling Clinic is an NHS service that covers the North of England and offers specialist support to people with a gambling disorder.

Tel: 030 0300 1490
Email: referral.ngs@nhs.net

Gamcare – A gambling charity that offers counselling and runs the National Gambling Helpline

Tel: 080 8802 0133

Gordon Moody Association - A residential gambling treatment programme with two facilities in England.

Tel: 013 8424 1292

Gamblers Anonymous (GA) - A 12 Step peer-led, gambling fellowship group.

Tel: 020 7384 3040

Gam-Anon (GA) - Peer-led gambling group for family members of those with a gambling disorder.

Domestic violence resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence as a result of a gambling disorder, or if you think your gambling is leading you to take part in abusive behaviours, here are some useful resources:

Respect Phoneline – Respect is a charity for people who think that they might be taking part in abusive behaviours and want to get help.

Domestic abuse: how to get help, Gov.uk – This website offers useful resources for people experiencing domestic violence across the UK.

Reporting child abuse, NSPCC – If you are concerned that a child is experiencing abuse or neglect, the NSPCC can provide you with advice. 

Further reading for patients and carers

Blaszczynski, A., 2010. Overcoming compulsive gambling. Hachette, UK.

Goodwin, S., 2021. The Girl Gambler: A young woman's story of her escape from gambling addiction. Self-published, UK.

Lynch, D and O’Reilly, T., 2019. Tony 10: The Astonishing Story of the Postman who Gambled EURO10,000,000 ... and lost it all. Gills Books, UK.

Further reading for professionals

Bowden-Jones, H. and George, S. eds., 2015. A clinician's guide to working with problem gamblers. Routledge, UK.

Bowden-Jones, H. and Prever, F. eds., 2017. Gambling disorders in women: an international female perspective on treatment and research. Taylor & Francis, UK.

Orford, J., 2011. An unsafe bet?: The dangerous rise of gambling and the debate we should be having. Wiley-Blackwell, UK.

This information was produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Public Engagement Editorial Board (PEEB). It reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing.

Expert authors: Zoe Delaney, Assistant Psychologist; Jenny Cousins, Family Lead and Systemic Practitioner; and Professor Henrietta Bowden–Jones OBE, Director and Consultant Psychiatrist at the National Problem Gambling Clinic.

With special thanks to Owen Baily, Peer Support Worker at the National Problem Gambling Clinic.

© December 2021 Royal College of Psychiatrists