Problem Gambling: Seeing the Signs and Finding Solutions


Posted: July 19, 2014

Updated: October 4, 2017

What casinos do to lure customers and keep them coming back; and what you can do to avoid becoming a problem gambler.

There is a very good reason why many people find casinos fun, entertaining and simply magnetic. They are designed to look like that and casino owners do everything that stands in their power to get you to come in, sit down on one of their comfy, ergonomic chairs and stay there for hours.

Music, bells, whirring reels and bright lights – nothing is haphazard here. From restaurants located near slots and table games to not having clocks on the wall, everything here is designed to get you gambling and keep you spending as much money, for as long as possible.

So where is that line? How do you know how much is too much? Let’s find out.

When gambling becomes a problem

Have you heard of gamblers blowing all their savings on slots or roulette? It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happens and the gambling news section of print and online publications often prove that. When you don’t have control over how much you’re spending anymore, that’s a sure sign that your hobby has become a problem.

Brian Kongsvik, helpline director for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling in Sanford, explains: “Twenty-five percent of the calls we receive for help each month come from someone 55 years or older or from a worried loved one calling about a relative in that age group. Besides slots, these same people also wager on card games and the lottery.”

The state ranks fourth in gambling revenue. According to psychologists, people over 50 make up a segment of population that is more vulnerable to gambling addiction. Dennis McNeilly, a clinical geropsychologist working for the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, has studied the problem extensively.

According to him, people in that age range are often faced with transitions in their family and work life. They might feel bored, excluded or depressed, and try to escape that by heading to the casino.

Casino customer strategy

You might think that casinos try to appeal to everyone, and most of the time they do. But customers over 50 are their primary target. Gambling venues even offer free dinners, drinks, coupons and other facilities.

“It’s mainstream entertainment, transportation is provided and they get freebies for joining a slot club,” says McNeilly. “Casinos regularly send mailings and even birthday cards. If you’re isolated or lonely, that matters.”

Casinos are also user-friendly. Everyone is welcome here 24 hours a day, regardless of age, social status and occupation. Not to mention some see it as a good way of meeting new people, socializing. But even if you end up visiting the casino three times a week, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a problem.

From entertainment to addiction

Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the University of California Los Angeles Gambling Studies Program explains how you can tell the difference: if going to the casino is improving the quality of your life and helping you make new friends, then it can be considered social time. As long as you know how much you can afford to spend, you’re still gambling responsibly.

But there’s a fine line between gambling for entertainment and becoming addicted to it. What you thought was a hobby can easily turn into compulsive or addictive behavior, and this is the point where your actions start doing harm to your life and the lives of those around you.

“A national study of older adults with gambling problems hasn’t yet been done. But the prevalence in the general adult population has an estimated range of 1.5 to 3% who meet the criteria for a pathological gambling diagnosis,” McNeilly explained.

When to ask for help

According to psychologists, problem gambling can be tricky because it doesn’t have obvious signs, like other types of addictions. “Unlike alcohol impairment, you don’t see the obvious signs,” says Fong, adding that people with gambling addictions “may be irritable, not sleeping well and not doing things they like as much as they did in the past.”

The often also start to sell their possessions to pay off debts, avoiding family members and friends. Sometimes they disappear for long periods of time. Such problems can spiral out of control very quickly and can end tragically.

It is important to know that if you notice your behavior has changed, or if one of your family members is acting strangely or gambling too much, there are programs financed under American gambling laws designed to help.

Gambling should not be avoided. It’s a popular activity and it’s here to stay, doctors say. But people have to make sure it only takes up a small part of their recreational time.

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