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Playing Russian Roulette with Mental Health

Gambling isn’t something that’s front and centre of most of our minds on a day-to-day basis – in fact, it can seem like something that barely touches everyday life. However, it’s far more in-grained than we think. Gambling isn’t just going into a bookmakers to bet on horses or dogs – it’s a casual annual bet on the Grand National, it’s playing the National Lottery every week; something that most of us have probably done at some point without really thinking about it.

When we look at the statistics, we can see how much of an impact gambling has on people in the UK. In 2022, the UK gambling industry made approx. £14 billion, and almost 27% of the population gamble weekly, with 44% of people gambling at least once. The average person spends £141 per year on gambling, which equates to around £2.70 per week. Most of these people can gamble responsibly with no detriment to their finances or their wellbeing.

However, this is not the case for everyone – figures show that there are thought to be nearly 170,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with men 7x more likely to develop a gambling problem than women, and those who are middle-aged more likely to struggle to control their gambling (despite the younger age-group of 18-24 year-olds being more likely to gamble overall)

To understand how and why gambling can become a problem, we should look at what it feels like. Of course, it’s different for each individual, but generally speaking, gamblers commonly feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, a rush of adrenaline when playing games of chance, and elation that follows a win. This euphoria can cause the brain to release feel-good chemicals as a ‘reward’ for winning, and this can reinforce the need to continue – chasing this feeling again and again can lead to a cycle that it hard to break; combined with the hope of future successes and the need to recover losses, it can quickly spiral into addiction.

Once this happens, the feelings can change. Instead of excitement and euphoria, gamblers may start to feel anxious, nervous, tense, disappointed and frustrated, guilty and ashamed, and even obsessed, experiencing a compulsion to continue that can be overwhelming.

The wider and longer-term impact of problem gambling on mental health can be significant – you might experience anxiety, depression and stress due to the strain caused by repeated losses and potential build-up of debt. You might also feel isolated and lonely, as the guilt and shame of a gambling problem, as well as the stress caused by trying to hide it can leads to withdrawing from loved ones.

Gambling disorders can often lead to, or be associated with, substance abuse as a way to distract and distance from the anxiety, guilty and pain caused by the gambling. This can make the situation much worse, as it has a detrimental impact on mental health and can lead to further gambling in order to fund the secondary addiction.

If left unchecked with no support from friends, family or professionals, this can lead to suicidal feelings

But how do you recognise if you, or a loved one, has a problem with gambling? It can be very easy to hide the habit, or gloss over what you are doing as harmless. However, there are several signs and behaviours that can indicate a person is struggling with gambling-related issues:

  • Preoccupation with gambling: you might constantly think or talk about gambling, and spend increasing amounts of time planning your next gambling session

  • Loss of control: the inability to control or stop gambling, despite (sometimes frequent) attempts to do so

  • Increasing time and money spent: in an effort to recoup losses, you might spend further time and money gambling, or you may begin betting ever larger amounts in order to chase previous losses

  • Neglecting responsibilities and self: withdrawing from or not concentrating on work, school, family, and other responsibilities due to gambling; you might also begin to neglect your personal hygiene, relationships, interests and overall self-care

  • Borrowing money: frequent or increased borrowing or lending money from/to friends, family, or financial institutions to fund gambling activities

  • Deceptive behaviours: you might begin hiding or lying about gambling activities, losses, or the amount of time spent gambling, which can cause strain with family and friends

  • Emotional distress: you might find yourself experiencing mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or depression related to how a gambling session went

It's important to note that the presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean someone is a problem gambler, but they may warrant further investigation and support.

Gambling can be enjoyed safely and in moderation, but if you recognise any of the above signs in yourself or a loved one, and gambling is causing stress, worry, debt and even suicidal thoughts, stop and seek help from specialist organisations who offer targeted support. Early prevention is key to stopping things spiralling out of control – the following groups might be able to support you or your loved ones to decrease and/or stop your gambling:

National Gambling Helpline: 0808 8020 133

You can also access help via the NHS by speaking to your GP who can refer you to specialised treatment, which might include CBT, support groups and financial counselling.

For organisations who can assist with debt problems, take a look at the list in our previous blog on managing your finances.

Whatever help you seek, make sure you don’t play Russian roulette with your mental health, or the mental health of those around you.

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