A gambling addiction can be difficult to recognize, not just in yourself, but with loved ones especially. Signs don’t usually become obvious until financial ruin sets in. This is because gambling is crafty and subtle. It gives the illusion of easy money. The industry though is strong and lucrative, because (as you know) it’s designed to ensure the house wins. 

Problem gambling will usually lead to a variety of severe personal and professional problems such as depression, bankruptcy, domestic abuse, fraud, theft, and homelessness. These issues can also be damaging to the addicts' loved ones. Gambling addictions have become such a common occurrence that the Canada Safety Council treats problem gambling as a community safety matter and crime prevention issue. 

For these reasons and more, we need to learn the signs your loved one has a gambling addiction. 

Ontario has more gamblers than any other province, However, provincial laws and regulations are largely based around findings from Industry Canada. They consider the following activities as gambling:

  • Bingo
  • Casino table games
  • Charitable raffles
  • Electronic gaming machines
  • Horse racing
  • Internet gaming sites
  • Lotteries

About 65% of adults participate in lotteries, making these tickets the most popular gambling activity in Canada. Scratch tickets are used by 36% of adults. Only approximately 22% of adults visit casinos in Ontario. Of those who do gamble in casinos, 49% said they only play slot machines. It’s important to note; most of these statistics are from 2017-2019 as COVID-19 severely skewed recent numbers. 

During the few years leading up to the Pandemic, Canada’s gambling industry generated $17.3 billion dollars. An astounding 43% of that came from Ontario.

While there may be a few personality traits that gamblers have in common, the reality is there are no definitive rules for who a problem gambler could be. We can take a look at common characteristics which do offer some interesting insight:

  • 57% of women in Ontario gamble at in-person gambling venues, while 73% of men do the same.
  • For online gambling, the numbers are a little less even between the sexes, 81% of online gamblers are men.
  • Bingo is popular in the 40+ demographic.
  • Lottery tickets are purchased most often by 19-35 year-olds.
  • Slot machines are most used by those 50-65 years.
  • Younger adults (18-25) are more likely to play video games, than visit the casino. Video games are actually believed to be a key factor in the decline of problem gambling, however some video games, such as those provided in bars as well as online have a gambling component.

As you can see from the statistics above, gambling is diverse. When you have many types of games, you’re likely to have many types of gamblers. This is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to spot a problem gambler. 

  • PROFESSIONAL GAMBLERS turn gambling into a career. It is rare to find one, but they do exist. Such a strategy takes great patience, intelligence, and self-control. Most compulsive and personality gamblers (mentioned below) hope to become professional gamblers.
  • COMPULSIVE GAMBLERS are completely driven by money and controlled by gambling. They have experienced numerous failed attempts to stop gambling and have seen problems increase in relationships, work, and at home.
  • CONSERVATIVE GAMBLERS love the thrill of winning. They’re usually interested in playing a little bit of everything. Their budget is modest and they limit their time, which is why it’s rare that conservative gamblers become problematic. 
  • PERSONALITY GAMBLERS usually break the law more than any other gambler. Their activities are often illegal, such as betting on unlawful acts or cheating at legal games. They rely on sketchy tactics like fixing a race slipping a card up their sleeve. 
  • RELIEF AND ESCAPE GAMBLERS often behave in the same way as drug abusers; turning to gambling to cope with stress, depression, or anxiety. Unfortunately, just like alcohol and drugs, the behaviour doesn’t solve problems, it just creates more. 
  • CASUAL SOCIAL GAMBLERS are most common in casinos and bingo halls. They pop in occasionally, spending a small, affordable amount of money. They can be compared to a social drinker; the experience is less about winning and more about time with friends.
  • SERIOUS SOCIAL GAMBLERS are considered a hybrid between the casual social gambler and those in it for relief and escape. They spend much of their free time gambling, but relationships and finances haven’t been negatively affected yet.

Problem gambling develops from a psychological principle called Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS). This is where a response is positively reinforced after unpredictable responses. The term “variable” indicates that the means can be bingo, lottery, slot machines, etc. The term “ratio” indicates there’s a high rate of occurrence. VRRS has been recognized as a compulsion-inducing system. Because of this, we know there are warning signs in your loved ones that you should be looking out for: 
When a gambler begins to bet more than they can afford, it’s a sure sign they can no longer control their gambling. Money isn’t the only thing a problem gambler will risk; jobs and relationships will become less important than placing their next bet. 
Feeling the need to hide their behaviour is a core symptom of any addiction. When the compulsion is so strong they’re willing to go to great lengths to cover their gambling, deep down they know what they’re doing is wrong. It becomes especially difficult when pathological gamblers start believing their own lies. “Cognitive dissonance” is the term used to describe a person taking part in activities that are not in-line with their values. Logically this should stop them from gambling, but logic doesn’t apply to addictions. This is why an addict starts lying to themselves.
As with other addictions, problematic gambling is a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, those gambling to escape from a bad or stressful situation, always end up stirring up other negative emotions. Time away from gambling drags on and becomes depressing. The reward-center of the brain lost those “feel-good” neurotransmitters, leading to sluggish, irritable, and unhappy times. It’s fair to say the emotions of a problematic gambler become unregulated and dysfunctional.
Pathological gamblers have lost their impulse control, resulting in the obsession with gambling... and the possibility of winning. If they’re not gambling, they’re thinking about it. They focus on past bets, regardless if they lost or won. Thinking about ways to spend their winnings also preoccupies them. These obsessive thoughts eventually become invasive and unbearable. 

Initiating a conversation about someone’s addiction is not easy. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself for an array of possible reactions including anger and denial. Their reaction to the conversation should not be seen as a reason to avoid it. Remember, the problem is not likely to get better on its own. 

Honesty is important while you’re sharing your concerns. It’s also wise to manage your expectations; don’t go into the conversation expecting them to quit right away. These things take time, and as difficult as it is to watch, ultimately, the choice to stop gambling is up to them. 

You’ll probably feel more sensitive and stressed during this time. Attempts to appeal to the emotions of your loved one are often fleeting. Many have thought: “if I yell enough / cry enough / threaten enough, then they’ll stop”. It’s also common for families to think “What did I do wrong?” Thoughts like this usually come from feeling desperate and out of control. When an addict recognizes the pain they're causing, it inspires them to make false promises, just to satisfy your needs. This is the beginning of the endless cycle of hope, disappointment, and frustration that many family members experience.

Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s a difficult lesson that almost everyone in your position has to learn. The only person who can stop the addiction is the addict themself. During this time, you can offer support and comfort them.

When dealing with a gambling addict, you have to remember to take care of yourself, first. Making yourself sick over their addiction won’t inspire them to stop. Be sure to take the time to cook healthy meals and get plenty of exercise. Both will help your body cope with the extra stress. 

The drain you feel from discovering and trying to help a problem gambler is the reason support groups for family members of addicts have become popular. Meetings are usually free and full of people (family members) just like you. 

Two key messages these support groups instill in their members include:
1.    The addiction is not your fault and self-blame won’t help.
2.    You never had or will have control over the addiction process. 

Life does become a bit more peaceful when you’re able to accept these reminders, but it’s understandably difficult to do so.

ConnexOntario provides contact information for mental health and addictions services. Our support is customized to meet each caller's needs. Our professionals listen, offer support and provide strategies to help meet your goals. We can also provide information to help educate yourself on addictions or other mental health problems.