Problem Gambling Awareness Month: When Gambling Addiction and Substance Use Collide

Published on March 16, 2021

Canaan, CT – March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, an observation designed to draw public attention to the dangers of gambling. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, two million American adults struggle with a gambling disorder. People with a gambling problem face a greater risk of experiencing substance use disorders (SUDs) and other consequences that can erode their quality of life.

Elizabeth Kelley, LCSW, CADC, Clinician at Mountainside treatment center who is also a Problem Gambling Specialist, defines problem gambling as “a compulsive need to run numbers, place wages, take chances through any means that interfere with one’s daily life.” It is “a behavioral addiction that hyper-stimulates the brain’s reward system, which is similar to substance use disorder, without ingesting an addictive substance.”

According to Kelley, another point of overlap between the two conditions is the need to continue these negative or harmful behaviors despite the potential risks of doing so. Kelley notes that the DSM-5 criteria for problem gambling and alcohol use disorder have several similar identifiers, including increased need for more, inability to reduce or stop the behavior, preoccupied persisting thoughts, and inability to fulfill commitments.

Each person’s journey from active addiction to recovery is different, but more commonly, those who suffer from problem gambling are more likely to struggle with a SUD later, especially alcohol use disorder. One study found that 73 percent of people with a gambling problem also struggled with alcoholism. A likely cause of this link, Kelley says, is that “casinos serve free alcoholic beverages to keep clients betting. This is not by mistake nor the benefit of the customer, but clearly is designed to favor the casino corporations.”

Resources such as Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a peer support group, provide valuable assistance to those coping with problem gambling. As with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), GA is a 12 Step program that highlights the importance of accountability and social support in recovery, connecting members with like-minded individuals who have experienced similar challenges. Those who struggle with cross addiction can address both their gambling problem and substance use disorder by contacting a local treatment center.

“Here at Mountainside, we provide a comprehensive approach, which includes a combination of individual and group therapy, with the preferred method involving both behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapy,” says Kelley. “It is important for a client to be simultaneously abstinent from both gambling and substances. Clinicians will work with clients to identify underlying motives and thought patterns while establishing healthy coping strategies to manage triggers and urges.” A comprehensive treatment program will target both conditions to boost clients’ chances of long-term recovery.