Gambling And Mental Health

Written on 03/01/2024
Sophie Kirk

Gambling. For most, an occasional fun treat, or even a weekly ritual with their family. Who hasn’t enjoyed a flutter on the lottery when the jackpot’s high, or tried their luck on a scratch card? But for some people, dipping their toe into the water isn’t enough. For them, gambling quickly becomes an addiction, and one that can have a huge impact on their mental health. 

When Does Gambling Become a Problem?

Gambling is something that almost every adult has done at least once in their life – even if it’s just the scratch card someone bought you on your 16th birthday. And it can be an enjoyable thing to do every now and then, a little thrill for a special occasion. But for some, gambling becomes a bigger part of their lives. It’s something they do every day, usually several times a day, with riskier odds. Problem gambling affects around 593,000 people in the UK, and it’s defined as anyone who gambles ‘with negative consequences and a possible loss of control.’ 

You, or someone you love may have a gambling problem if you:

  • Spend more money on gambling than you can afford
  • Gamble when you should be doing something else, like working or spending time with family
  • Feel anxious or stressed about your gambling
  • Use gambling to deal with problems or difficult feelings
  • Lie to family and friends about your gambling
  • Borrow or steal to fund your gambling

Gambling and Mental Health 

Like many other addictions, gambling can have a serious impact on your mental health – especially if it develops into an addiction. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, people who gamble at harmful levels are much more likely than others to develop mental health problems. Low self-esteem, stress-related disorders (often caused by financial worry), anxiety, poor sleep, depression, and extreme mood swings. They’re also more likely to develop substance abuse problems, which can just add fuel to the fire. 

In fact, most experts agree that people who struggle with gambling almost always have a coexisting mental health problem, either caused by the gambling or fuelled by it. This often leads to a cycle. For example, if someone is depressed, they may go online and gamble to make themselves feel better. This makes them overdrawn on bank accounts or sends them into debt, which only makes them more depressed. That kind of cycle can be really hard to break.

Problem gamblers are also 15 times more likely to commit suicide. When this statistic was first published it sent shock waves through the UK public, many of whom weren’t aware of how significant the mental health impact of gambling can be. Decreased impulse control coupled with a range of mental health problems that can prompt suicidal thoughts, along with increased financial pressure – it’s like a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Gambling And Brain Chemistry

Gambling can also change your brain chemistry, making it harder to break out of the addiction cycle. Research done by the Imperial College, London suggests that gambling addiction activates the same pathways in the brain as drugs and alcohol – and trigger the same type of cravings. The act of gambling and winning releases small doses of dopamine – the ‘feel good’ hormone that gives us feelings of pleasure and reward. Every time you win, and soon every time you gamble, your brain gives you that same emotional reward. You crave it more and more, until soon nothing else in life can give you that same buzz, so you gamble more and more. 

On top of that, the study found that the connections between the areas of your brain that control impulses may be weakened in people with a gambling addiction. So it becomes harder to resist the impulse to gamble the more you do it. In other words, gambling can fundamentally change your brain chemistry over time.

Can You Treat Gambling Problems?

The good news is, it’s very possible to change your brain chemistry back. Gambling addiction can be treated in the same way as other addictions, including through rehab facilities across the UK. Two of the most popular and effective ways of managing gambling addiction are DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). CBT is particularly effective because it helps the person identify the thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs that lead them to gambling in the first place, and work to change those thought patterns. It essentially rewires the patterns between their triggers and substance use behaviours. This can include skill building for problem-solving, refusing gambling and general coping skills needed to change the behaviours that are intertwined with addictions. Studies have shown CBT is incredibly effective in-person, delivered in a group setting or through self-directed online programs with minimal therapist support – the kind you can find in the Melp app.

CBT is often used alongside a range of holistic therapies designed to help both body and mind recover. This includes:

  • Exercise
  • Proper nutrition
  • Mindfulness and relaxation
  • Meditation
  • Yoga and breathwork

A holistic therapist’s job here is to help locate the root of the problem by bringing balance to a client’s physical mental and spiritual wellbeing, supporting them through the addiction process and helping establish healthy coping mechanisms for the future. Even if not done with a therapist, these holistic approaches to mental wellbeing can be really useful for overcoming gambling addiction and the mental health problems it can cause. 

Gambling is something that doesn’t just affect one person, but the people around them as well. If you feel like you or someone you know is struggling with a gambling addiction, it’s important they get help right away. GamCare is a fantastic charity supporting anyone affected by problem gambling. Their self-assessment tool can help you understand the impact gambling has on your life and provide resources to help you change your gambling habits.

At Melp, our aim is to provide you with the support and tools you need to handle any problems life can throw at you. A lot of our resources and programmes can be very helpful to people struggling with gambling impulses, and because it’s all based on an app developed by qualified mental health professionals, it’s like having a therapist in your pocket to guide you through it, step by step. 

Within this Melp app we also have the option for online therapy with one of our qualified mental health experts. Gambling issues often need a more personal support network, and so we provide therapy at a 10% discount when you book through Melp. This gives you the individual support you need, and the self-help tools to keep you on track.