Many Americans enjoy gambling, from buying the occasional lottery ticket or scratch card to playing the slot machines at a casino. Gambling is a common form of entertainment in almost every culture, typically defined as putting something of value at risk based on an outcome that is entirely up to chance.1 It is a social activity that can bring together family, friends, and strangers around a card table, a television set, or a computer screen.
But it can be difficult to see the line that separates recreational gambling from problem gambling, and many people unwittingly cross it. Unfortunately, crossing back over is not so easy.
Learn More About Behavioral Health
Behavioral health addictions are illnesses that are precipitated or perpetuated by your conscious decisions and which you are unable to resist the urge to repeat, despite negative consequences. Changing your addictive behaviors directly influences your life, then, by lessening or removing the symptoms of the addiction. Read More
Gambling addiction is one of the most common behavioral addictions that researchers have identified. When a person develops a behavioral addiction, the problem behavior affects the reward circuitry of the brain much in the same way that substance abuse does.1
Gambling addiction lies along a spectrum that also closely resembles drug and alcohol addiction, beginning with abstinence and ending with a gambling disorder. The majority of people who gamble are social gamblers, which means gambling causes them no permanent problems, lasts a limited amount of time, and remains within a pre-determined set of acceptable losses. This type of casual gambling represents 80-85% of people who gamble.1
The next level of gambling is problem gambling, which includes those people who continue to gamble despite experiencing negative consequences. This category of gamblers is conceptually similar to people who move from casual drinking to alcohol abuse. Problem gamblers are at risk of developing a more severe gambling addiction. Researchers believe that about 0.4–2% of the U.S. adult population are problem gamblers, although these numbers may be on the rise.2
People with a gambling addiction continuously chase their losses, always trying to make back their money by betting more.
A pathological gambling addiction is extremely destructive to the gamblers and those around them. Otherwise known as compulsive gambling or pathological gambling, it is characterized by an intense urge to gamble, despite the negative toll it takes on your life. A compulsive gambling disorder can send your life into chaos, leading to major financial problems, huge amounts of debt, and relationship problems.3
If you have a gambling addiction, you are likely preoccupied with gambling: You spend a lot of time thinking about past exciting gambling experiences and planning how to get money for future gambling. People with a gambling addiction continuously chase their losses, always trying to make back their money by betting more money. If you have a gambling problem, you might be hiding it from your family and lying to them about your financial troubles. You also might turn to others for help with your financial problems.3
Other signs and symptoms of gambling addiction include:3
- Gambling with increasing amounts of money to get the same level of excitement.
- Attempting to cut back, stop, or control your gambling without success.
- Experiencing “withdrawal” when you try to stop in the form of anxiety, irritability, and restlessness.
- Gambling to escape problems or to relieve feelings of distress.
- Jeopardizing or losing relationships, jobs, or school and work opportunities.
- Resorting to fraud or theft to get gambling money.
How Does a Hotline Help?
When people gamble casually for entertainment, they do so with the expectation that they might lose money. When they lose, they accept the consequences. Problem gamblers, on the other hand, are compelled to keep playing. In their endless pursuit to recover losses by placing more bets, problem gamblers get stuck in a destructive cycle that affects their physical and mental health. Even if you periodically abstain from gambling, your gambling addiction will likely continue until you seek mental health treatment.
Gambling hotlines are an option for people who aren’t sure what to do next. It is common for people with gambling disorders to refuse to admit they have a problem, even as their lives are falling apart around them. Often this is because they are struggling in secret. Talking to an impartial, non-judgmental person about the toll gambling is taking on your life can put things in better perspective.
Some call to distract themselves when the urge to gamble feels overpowering.
Some people call a gambling hotline because they know they have a problem and are looking for support through a crisis. Others call because they want to find resources in their area, such as support groups, counselors, or other treatment options. Still others call to distract themselves when the urge to gamble feels overpowering. Above all else, the person on the other end of the line is there to listen to you and help you in whatever way they can.
You have different options to choose from, which can be confusing. One guideline is to be aware of the fact that some hotlines are associated with a specific treatment center or recovery program since these hotlines have a business interest in referring you to their clinics. On the other hand, helplines run by non-profit organizations or government offices can give you a more unbiased referral.
Gambling Addiction Hotline Listings
If you or your loved one is in immediate danger or threatening suicide, call 911. If there is no emergency, then these options may prove helpful:
The National Council on Problem Gambling runs the National Problem Gambling Helpline network completely confidentially, 24/7, 365 days a year. The network is a single national access point for people seeking help for a gambling problem and consists of 28 call centers that provide referrals and information about local resources in all 50 states, Canada, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Call: 855-2CALLGA (855-222-5542)
The Gamblers Anonymous National Hotline will connect you to a volunteer or help you find a Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting in your area. Many states have local GA hotlines as well, which you can find listed by state on the website.
Gamblers Anonymous is a national peer-to-peer support group that follows a traditional 12-step addiction treatment program and offers free-to-attend meetings in every U.S. state.
Call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
En Español: 1-888-628-9454
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When you call, you will be connected to the crisis center nearest you.
No matter what problems you’re dealing with, whether you’re thinking about suicide or not, if you need someone to lean on for emotional support, call the Lifeline. People call to discuss all types of problems, including gambling disorders, relationships, financial troubles, and substance abuse.
Call: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental health disorders and substance or behavioral addictions.
SAMHSA’s Helpline does not provide counseling, but their trained specialists can transfer you to an appropriate intake center in your state or connect you with local assistance and support, such as therapists, counselors, treatment programs, and support groups.
Call: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
The NAMI Helpline is available Monday–Friday 10 a.m.–6 p.m. EST. Helpline staff and volunteers are there to answer your questions about mental health issues, including symptoms of gambling disorders and mental health conditions, treatment options, behavioral health issues, programs to help find jobs, legal issues, and how to help a loved one get treatment.
They do not provide counseling and cannot give specific treatment recommendations, but they can answer questions about local support groups and services. In the event of a crisis, your call will be transferred to a national crisis helpline.
Text: Text “hello” to 741741
The Crisis Text Line is a free, confidential, 24/7 resource for people in crisis. You will receive an automated text asking what your crisis is, and within minutes you will be connected with a live counselor. The person on the other end will help assess your situation and try to move you into a safer state of mind. People text the crisis line for all types of problems, including for emotional support, so if you are nervous about talking on the phone, this might be a good place to start.
- Fong, T. W. (2005). The biopsychosocial consequences of pathological gambling. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 2(3), 22–30.
- National Institutes of Health. (2011). When the stakes turn toxic.
- Mayo Clinic. (2016). Compulsive gambling.