Counseling Help for Problem Gambling

Table of Contents

Problem Gambling

Problem Gambling is defined as excessive gambling in layman’s terms, but there’s a lot more to it. Excessive gambling alone doesn’t qualify as a gambling addiction. Research has shown that Problem Gambling is best described as excessive gambling in concert with difficulties brought about by gambling. But it’s a lot more technical than that, as over three decades’ worth of case studies, research, and trials have found.

Problem Gambling certainly displays specific characteristics associated with alcohol and drug dependence, especially behavioral, psychological, and physiological traits. Still, it falls short of the required criteria to be diagnosed as an addiction.

The criteria as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III and DSM-IV) consisted of no less than ten criteria to identify Pathological Gambling (now called Gambling Disorder). However, clinicians and researchers recognized a high percentage of individuals displaying only a few of these ten criteria. These observations marked the acceptance of subclinical Pathological Gambling, which was subsequently identified as Problem Gambling.

In the 1999 Journal of Gambling Studies, Korn and Shaffer put forward a model that illustrated that gambling occurred along a continuum that ranged from levels 0-3. The continuum model, level 0 represented no gambling activity, level 1 represented non-problem gambling, level 2 represented at-risk gambling, and finally, level 3 represented diagnosable Pathological Gambling.

Individuals diagnosed as subclinical Pathological Gamblers are also described as ‘at-risk,’ ‘level 2’ and ‘probable pathological’ gamblers.

What is Pathological Gambling?

Pathological Gambling (now called Gambling Disorder) was reclassified from Impulse Control Disorders to Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders, based on the revised criteria, extensive research, and tests.

Pathological Gambling was initially classified as an impulse control disorder, where individuals would experience overwhelming impulses to act, succeeded by a sense of relief. However, Pathological Gamblers were found to enjoy the act of gambling and would only feel distressed when the gambling had ceased or if there was a financial loss.

It had become quite apparent that Pathological Gambling was similar to other addictive behaviors. Correlation between Pathological Gambling and substance use disorders’ comorbidity, diagnosis and assessment, neurobiological overlap, and treatment was undeniable. If that wasn’t enough reason to reclassify Pathological Gambling, it was also observed that the diagnostic criteria fit substance abuse and dependence compared to other impulse control disorders).

Problem Gambling is estimated to have a prevalence of up to 5.8% across the world (excluding Europe) and up to 3.4% in Europe. In contrast, a recent Canadian study found an estimated prevalence of 2.7% in Canada in 2018, down from 3.7% in 2002, suggesting that dramatic inroads have been made through the 16 years difference.

How to Identify When Someone Has a Gambling Problem

The easiest way to identify a gambling problem is by comparing their behavior to the nine criteria as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). When evaluating the individual’s behavior, it’s important to remember the following points:

  • If an individual exhibits one to three of the symptoms below, they are classified as displaying subthreshold Problem Gambling and could very well be suffering from Problem Gambling.
  • If the symptoms below are directly linked to a manic episode, then the DSM-5 states a diagnosis should be deemed invalid.
  • In the event that more than one symptom has been exhibited, the DSM-5 requires that an individual displays the symptoms as listed in the criteria within 12 months.

A Problem Gambling diagnosis requires one to three of the following symptoms to be exhibited by an individual:

  1. Preoccupation. An individual is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble, and having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences).
  2. Withdrawal. An individual experiences withdrawal symptoms characterized by restlessness or irritability when trying to cut down or stop gambling.
  3. Tolerance. An individual needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money and frequency in order to achieve the desired excitement.
  4. Escape. An individual uses gambling as a coping mechanism to reduce stress or gambles when feeling depressed.
  5. Chasing. An individual frequently tries to win back their losses to break even by gambling even more. Although it’s common for gamblers to chase for short periods, the long-term chase is more characteristic of Problem Gambling.
  6. Lying. An individual lies to hide the extent of their gambling involvement.
  7. Loss of control. An individual has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
  8. Risked significant relationship. An individual has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  9. Bailout. The individual relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling.

Simple Ways to Cope with an Individual that Displays Signs of Problem Gambling

Dealing with an individual with a gambling problem can be stressful and difficult. It’s essential to know how to support and interact with your partner, family member, or friend suffering from Problem Gambling. Productive ways to address gambling issues are in the section below:

  • Relate to the individual as an equal person
  • Recognize the individual’s positive qualities
  • Communicate feelings carefully and openly
  • Allow the individual to take responsibility for their behavior
  • Convey a willingness to support the individual in their struggle
  • Set boundaries in managing money, if financial responsibility is shared
  • Understand the need for treatment and neurology of pathological gamblers
  • When dealing with the individual, it’s best not to preach, lecture, or lose control
  • Don’t deny the issue
  • Don’t exclude the individual
  • Don’t help the individual to lie and deceive
  • Don’t take on the individual’s burden by lending money or paying their debts
  • Don’t expect immediate recovery or for problems will cease when the gambling stops

How to Ask for Help

Studies have shown that up to a third of individuals suffering from gambling-related problems are set to recover without treatment. For the individuals who turn to treatment, several options, including self-help and peer support, brief and motivational interventions, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, have proven effective in regaining control.

Medical and Psychological programs

There is an abundance of programs and treatments in Canada that harness literature, philosophy, psychology, and clinical strategies.

12-Step Recovery Program

This philosophy is embraced by Gamblers Anonymous that has proven results in association withprofessional treatment. In fact, many healthcare professionals incorporate Gamblers Anonymous as a component in treatment.


Self-help literature has proven to be beneficial in comparison to no treatment. For self-help literature to be effective, it is advisable that therapist interaction forms a component of the treatment.

Motivational Interventions

This treatment has proven to be effective with changes in behavior observed a year after a single-session treatment. Treatments embrace clinical strategies and comprise of brief intervention, client assessment, counseling, or multiple sessions.

Cognitive and/or Behavioral Therapies

Professionally delivered, manual-guided Cognitive and/or Behavioral Therapies have been proven to deliver favorable results compared to Gamblers Anonymous and self-help literature. These therapies are short-term, focused therapies that address psychological problems with the assistance of psychiatrists, psychologists, or other mental health providers.


Within this article, we’ve addressed Problem Gambling, Gambling Disorder, and the difference between the two terms. We’ve looked at the criteria to form a diagnosis and the treatments available to individuals suffering from gambling problems. It’s important to note that Problem Gambling is treatable and that there are specific ways to deal with Problem Gambling in order to facilitate a smooth transition to treatment and recovery.