How to spot a person with a gambling disorder and how to help

Gambling disorder is sometimes referred to as a “hidden addiction” because it can be present without any physical signs.

Many people who suffer from gambling harms will go to great lengths to hide their behaviour and the negative consequences that it creates due to feelings of shame and guilt. To them it may seem that the only way to escape the negative consequences of gambling is to continue gambling.
Other people with problem gambling behaviours are in a state of denial where they are yet to accept the extent and severity of the problems that their gambling creates.

These gambling disorder mechanisms can make it very difficult for colleagues, relatives, and friends to spot when a person is experiencing problems due to their gambling.

However, in many cases continued gambling disorder will start to leave some traces. For instance, you might notice that a person is:

  • spending a lot of time on gambling
  • isolating themselves, cancelling social plans or neglecting their work/studies
  • lying about or hiding their gambling behaviour (especially their losses)
  • stressed, anxious, irritable, or restless
  • asking to borrow money
  • losing interest in their usual hobbies and activities

Observing these signs may indicate that the person is suffering gambling disorder but remember that other life circumstances can lead to some of the same behaviours.
It is, therefore, important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, you should carefully consider how you best approach the situation, which may depend on a lot of factors such as your relationship to the person and the observations you have made.

Below you will find some general advice on how you may approach a person whom you suspect suffers from problem gambling behaviour.

  • Read about gambling disorder and listen to stories from people who have dealt with this issue themselves. This allows you to better understand what the person is going through, so that you can better meet them where they are.
  • Reach out to a helpline or similar support resources. Many countries offer national helplines that provide anonymised help to people with gambling disorder and those close to them.
    This means that you can talk to trained persons about your observations, concerns, and how you may be able to help the person exhibiting problem gambling behaviour.
  • If you choose to talk with the person about their gambling behaviour, try to do so without accusing them or making assumptions about their gambling behaviour.
    Try to be curious, understanding, and show that you want to help them because you care about them. Start by describing what you have observed and how you feel about these observations as a way to open up the conversation.
    Remember to listen and be supportive but also that they may try to explain away their problems. It is never going to be easy but if you come prepared you are more likely to be successful.
  • Take care of yourself by setting boundaries and getting support. Reaching out to someone about their gambling behaviour can be a tough process. You may experience the person getting upset or defensive. Be careful about blaming yourself for the person’s situation or making it your responsibility to fix their gambling problem.

If they are receptive to your help, then try to explore together what options might be available. There are different apps available offering various support tools and some countries offer free treatment.

Another option is joining a physical or online problem gambling support group.  What offers are most appropriate varies depending on the person’s situation. Get started on something and change the strategy if the offer is not helping the person exhibiting a gambling disorder.

You might also find that the person is uncooperative and get defensive.
In this case, a strategy may be to let the person know that you are there for them if they want to talk about their gambling behaviour at a later time. 

Lastly, you should remember that you cannot fix the person’s gambling disorder. They will have to do this themselves. You can only assist from the side-line by providing emotional support when things are tough and celebrate together with the person when they are making progress.

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