Problem gambling has far-reaching impacts on an individual's physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

It can also be detrimental to an individual’s relationships and livelihoods, affecting their jobs, financial security and self-esteem. Problem gambling can be as addictive as illicit substances. Research shows the release of dopamine during gambling activates similar brain areas to those activated when abusing substances., leaving neurological impacts on the brain.

Given the complex and addictive nature of problem gambling, it's important to provide individuals with a holistic approach from family, friends and professionals. We asked Desiree Zeballos from our Gambling Counselling Service in NSW to share words of advice on how to help yourself or a loved one overcome problem gambling.

1. Identify the signs

Problem gambling is disruptive, affecting the way someone spends their time, money and energy. Although not everyone who engages in gambling will demonstrate addictive behaviours, looking out for early signs can help tackle problem gambling early on.

In Desiree’s experience supporting individuals with problem gambling, here are five signs of problem gambling:

  1. Secrecy: If you or a loved one is gambling in secret or lying to people about how much you gamble, it’s likely that you are displaying a gambling problem. Being secretive about a habit is a similar behavioural trait demonstrated among people with substance dependencies.

  2. Financial problems: People who gamble for fun don’t invest too much money on gambling. Early signs of problem gambling involve increasing the number of bets and increasing the amount of money in a bet. It's also likely that an individual with problem gambling, will place a bet well beyond their means.

  3. Changing priorities: Are you spending endless time engaging in gambling? People with problem gambling are likely to prioritise gambling over everything else, including time with family, building their career or engaging in personal development. Things that once mattered are usually set aside and replaced with gambling.

  4. Mental strain: Visible signs that someone is dealing with problem gambling can include a rapid decline in their mental and relational wellbeing. Gambling can be a symptom of underlying trauma or pain, and can mask feelings of depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. Look out for changes in someone’s mental wellbeing – are they more constantly distracted, preoccupied or agitated? This may be an early sign of problem gambling.

  5. Risky behaviour: A compulsive gambler will often go to great lengths to feed their gambling habit. In some instances, this may involve stealing or committing other crimes.

If one or more of these early signs are relatable to your situation, it may be time to seek professional help.

2. Unpack the stigma

Desiree emphasises the value of taking a community-wide approach to addressing the issue of gambling, reassuring people that they are not alone in their experiences.

Although sports betting advertising often features younger males, problem gambling impacts people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Reinforcing stereotypes that problem gamblers are ‘irresponsible’ and have not taken responsibility for their choices, can have detrimental effects in discouraging people from seeking help or talking about their issue.

Through her work at our gambling counselling service, Desiree has been actively trying to reduce stigma in the community by raising awareness, running workshops and educating the community on how to screen for problem gambling.

3. Continue to show support

Supporting a loved one struggling with harmful gambling is important to their full recovery.

In the journey to recovery, you can show support by:

  • Believing your loved one can recover: This may be difficult when trust has been shattered in a relationship but trying to forgive a loved one and working on restoring confidence can go a long way in helping a loved one.

    When you blame or shame someone struggling with problem gambling, this can lower their confidence and deepen their sense of loss or failure, which can lead to a relapse in addictive behaviour. When you believe they can recover and move on from harmful gambling, this can help boost their confidence levels.

  • Looking after yourself: Supporting a loved one can be emotionally taxing. When you look after your wellbeing in a holistic manner, you'll gain the strength to support your loved one through the journey of therapy. Looking after yourself can include eating a well-balanced diet, reducing alcohol consumption, practicing mindfulness or investing in a hobby. It might help to go for a short walk every day and give yourself space to remember the good qualities of your loved one.

    “Take the time to dig deep and refresh your own soul at the same time. We often use the analogy of the oxygen mask on an aeroplane. Put the mask on your own face first, refresh, seek support for yourself through our services.” - Desiree.

Helping a loved one overcome problem gambling requires a holistic approach but it also involves self-care. Access our resources and learn how our financial wellbeing services can guide you as you support a loved one on their journey to overcoming problem gambling.

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