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What to do when someone you love is a pathological gambler

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How can we recognize the problem, and what can we do about it?

In an earlier article, I explained what pathological gambling is. The natural question is then how we can recognize a gambling addict, and what to do about it?

When considering why people gamble, it’s important to understand that, in general, it isn’t always easy to identify the specific causes behind a gambling addiction. Generally speaking, repetition of this kind of activity fosters the creation of a bad habit or vice. In some cases, we can even hypothesize the presence of mental health dysfunction, especially if at least three of the following symptoms are present:

  • The addict continuously bets with more and more money.
  • The person bets with money that shouldn’t be risked because it is necessary to cover basic necessities.
  • He is always trying to recover the “investment,” continuing to bet so as to recover everything that has been lost because he thinks that now his luck has changed.
  • The addict loses control, being unable to stop gambling and betting.
  • He commits crimes, or does whatever is necessary to obtain money to keep gambling.
  • The person puts at risk important relationships, since his priority is always gambling and betting.
  • He doesn’t enjoy the actual activity of betting, because the goal is only to win money.
  • The addict tends to deny that he has a problem when his family and friends try to help him.
  • The person has suicidal tendencies due to the debts that he has accumulated because of gambling.

First steps for overcoming pathological gambling

A wide variety of treatments exist for pathological gambling; they include counseling, self-help groups, and psychiatric medicine. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to reduce the symptoms and urges of pathological gambling. This kind of therapy focuses on identifying the mental processes related to this behavior, and the distortions of thought and mood that increase vulnerability to it. In addition, this therapy uses techniques for teaching skills that help prevent relapses, and that encourage problem solving and assertiveness in rejecting gambling. It also reinforces activities and interests that contrast with gambling.

However, when the addiction process is already advanced, what the addict needs is a clinic specializing in addiction disorders. When gambling is just one of several addictions — such as addictions to alcohol or drugs — the best option is detoxification treatment at a psychiatric clinic. Usually, part of therapy is an agreement to completely halt any gambling. It’s not enough to simply reduce gambling activity. Total abstinence is especially recommended when the addiction is clearly getting stronger, such that the addict is truly becoming dependent on the object of the addiction.

In conclusion: As in all cases of deviant behavior and vices, the best remedy is prevention. Avoiding the occasion of addictive behavior is always an effective strategy, but even more so when the person has received support and education from his or her family from a young age, thus discovering and appreciating the true values in life.

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