Gambling With Your Health—Literally

Do you love casinos? How about bingo? Do you bet on the NCAA tournament championship? Do you gamble on the Internet? If so, you are not alone: More than 70 percent of adults in the United States report that they’ve gambled at least once during the past year. (1) Nationally, 6 to 8 million people meet the criteria for compulsive gambling, which can affect a person’s financial health, mental health and physical health—ultimately devastating the individual, family and community. (2) The increased availability, popularity and legalization of gambling only compound the problem. Consider these statistics:

  • Except for Hawaii and Utah, all states have some form of legalized gambling, and $95 billion in gaming revenue is generated by casinos, tracks and state lotteries;
  • Every year, $6 billion in federal tax revenue comes from individual gambling winnings;
  • Gambling-related addiction, bankruptcy and crime cost the nation $7 billion annually. (3)

“Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime” was this year’s theme for the 10th annual National Problem Gambling Awareness Week (March 4 - 10, 2012), a grassroots campaign sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling. This important message reminds us that anyone can suffer from gambling problems. All gamblers and the problems they face are different. Individuals suffering from problem gambling range all age groups, income groups, cultures and jobs. Some people develop gambling problems suddenly while others cultivate problems over time. (4)

While gambling is a casual social activity for most participants, for some individuals it can become a compulsive or pathological problem with similarities to other addictive disorders. NCPG defines problem gambling as gambling behavior which causes disruptions in any major area of life—psychological, physical, social or vocational. The term “problem gambling” includes, but is not limited to, the condition known as “pathological” or “compulsive” gambling, a progressive addiction characterized by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing losses” and loss of control manifested by the continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting serious negative consequences. (5)

Some populations—including gaming employees, youth, college students, athletes, military veterans and older adults—are at higher risk for gambling problems than the general public. Compulsive gambling is also strongly correlated with substance use disorders and/or mental illness. People who are more susceptible to substance abuse/misuse are at high risk for compulsive gambling. And, the prevalence of problem gambling is higher for people with a history of substance use disorders, depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. At a minimum, the rate of problem gambling among people with substance use disorders is four to five times greater than that found in the general population. (6) 

People who find themselves in trouble with gambling can lose their jobs, homes and family and friends. Their addiction could lead not only to problematic domestic issues, but domestic abuse, violence and crime. They may feel depressed—sometimes even suicidal—and find themselves physically sick with higher rates of liver disease, blood pressure, heart attacks and such stress-related problems as hypertension and migraines. Despite all of these significant consequences, problem gambling is known as the “hidden” addiction because there are few outward signs of it; many problem gamblers do not experience an intervention or receive help until it is too late.

Problem gambling may be an “invisible” addiction, but increased awareness and detection of early signs of it—including changes in behavior, emotions, health, or finances—are keys to recovering from it.  Most problem gamblers will also be battling coinciding physical and/or mental illnesses. Pairing treatment for these issues with gambling-related counseling/program options ensures a holistic approach to the individual’s health. These programs can help people understand the reasons behind their gambling addiction so that they can cut down or stop it. Family counseling can help repair damaged relationships, while credit and debt counseling can help individuals get back on their feet financially. Problem gambling is a rare, chronic mental disorder, but it is treatable. Resources are out there for those who want to stop placing bets that put not only their money but their family, health and even their own lives at risk.

The following resources offer more information on problem gambling and help for those in need.

  • Gam-Anon ( is a self-help organization for spouses, family, or close friends of compulsive gamblers.
  • Gamblers Anonymous ( is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other so that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.
  • The National Center for Responsible Gaming ( is the only national organization exclusively devoted to funding research that helps increase the understanding of pathological and youth gambling and find effective methods of treatment for the disorder.
  • The National Council on Problem Gambling ( is the national advocate for programs and services to assist problem gamblers and their families.
  • NORC Diagnostic Screen for Gambling Problems ( is a simple self test that helps individuals evaluate their gambling behavior. Note: Screens are not diagnoses and do not replace face-to-face evaluations with trained clinical professionals.
  • The Problem Gambling Toolkit ( provides basic information on screening, assessment, referral, and treatment for problem gambling to substance abuse counselors, mental health therapists, primary care physicians, and social workers.
  • Your First Step to Change Online Workbook ( is a guide to understanding gambling, figuring out if an individual needs to change, and decide how to deal with the actual process of change.


1. Problem gambling. The Wellness Center, Student Health Services, The University of North Carolina—Greensboro. Retrieved from
2. National problem gambling awareness.  (2012). PR Newswire: National Business Media. Retrieved from
3. Problem gambling information: Facts and figures. (2012). National Problem Gambling Awareness Week. Retrieved from
4. Info on problem gambling. (2010). Center for Addiction and Mental Health. Retrieved from
5. About NCPG. National Council on Problem Gambling. Retrieved from
6. Problem gambling toolkit. (2007). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from

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