Let’s get this out of the way immediately; gambling addiction is real.
It goes without saying that gambling itself is widespread and largely legal. How many of us have seen the Mega Millions go up to $500 million and tossed a few bucks down the drain to join in on the fun? 82% of adults have participated in gambling in their lifetime and 52% participated in lottery gambling in the past year.
Nonetheless, the prevailing attitude is that for an addiction to “count” it has to always be related to or involve substances. Be it drugs or alcohol, it’s that a person is hooked on the associated high or buzz. While that’s true in a way, addiction, like everything else in life, is more complex.
The stark reality of gambling addiction though is that mortality and suicide rates are significantly elevated among those who are dealing with it.
Defining drug addiction itself at this point helps, The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines it as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. Those changes may last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs.”
The operative words here are “brain disorder” and “functional changes to the brain circuits involved in reward, stress and self-control”. With gambling, the same thing happens, the reward center of the brain is being stimulated, like a high or euphoria or buzz from drugs or alcohol. And that feeling is addictive.
You chase it.
Increasing the wagers.
Going into debt.
Engaging in riskier and riskier behavior in pursuit of the big win that’ll make everything right and let you finally get out of the game. But the big win never comes because there’s always a bigger one on the horizon and you’re hooked on the hunt for it.
Consider this, neuroimaging suggests that the brain regions involved in pathological gambling…are similar to the one involved in substance use disorders. Neurochemical studies have implicated alterations in the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine systems of pathological gamblers…suggesting increased release of dopamine in the brain”.
The Harvard Review of Psychiatry adds that “growing evidence suggests that these behaviors [non substance abuse related behaviors] warrant consideration as non substance or “behavioral” addictions and has led to the newly introduced diagnostic category “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders” in DSM-5. At present, only gambling disorder has been placed in this category”.
Furthermore, and as per the peer-reviewed journal Addictive Behaviors, “on the basis of research demonstrating clinical, phenomenological, genetic, neurobiological and other similarities between gambling and substance-use disorders, a decision was made to group pathological gambling (now gambling disorder) with substance-related disorders in DSM-5.”
As various types of gambling, like sports betting recently, become legalized in more states and with accessibility right at our fingertips, readily available on our phones, the incidence of gambling disorder will only rise with it. The most severe type of gambling disorder affects between 1% and 3%, a similar rate to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
To add insult to injury, or make something bad…worse, research shows that there is a particularly high co-occurrence between substance use and gambling with gambling disorders reported 2- to 10-times more often in those with drug or alcohol use issues. Additionally, high rates of substance abuse disorders have been found in people with gambling problems.