Since the early 1990s permanent casinos have been springing up in communities all across Canada. Our government has relaxed its views on gambling and made it much more accessible to adults everywhere. In more recent years this has expanded to include government-run online gambling portals as well.
With this increase in availability has come an increase in the number of problem and pathological gamblers and media attention surrounding the potential problems arising from gambling.
People with addictions to gambling experience an impulse control disorder where there is persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behaviour. The addicted gamble very frequently; often deceive family about their gambling activity; may borrow money in order to continue gambling; or keep returning to gambling in hopes of making back money they have lost in past visits.
Pathological gambling affects roughly 1.5 percent of Canadians, although the numbers seem to be on the rise as gambling becomes more readily available. An additional 2.5 percent are considered less severe problem gamblers.
Pathological or problem gamblers are most likely to be male and to be poorly educated; however, this is an addiction that can affect anyone.
Gambling addictions bring with them a host of other problems or are an exacerbating issue for people already struggling with other addictions and difficulties.
Studies show a strong association between pathological gambling and substance abuse disorders, particularly alcoholism. In fact, those with alcohol abuse problems who are also pathological gamblers have been found to have a younger age of onset and a longer duration of alcohol dependence than alcoholics without gambling problems.
Not only are substance abuse problems common among pathological gamblers, but there is a high prevalence of other psychiatric disorders as well. A large number of problem gamblers also experience depression. Bipolar disorder is also common – affecting roughly 17 percent of pathological gamblers.
Losing money is inevitable for frequent gamblers as the system is set up to make a profit for the house with only occasional payouts. With this in mind, pathological gamblers often face serious financial loss and debt as a result of their addiction and face desperate circumstances.
Unfortunately, with gambling problems come much higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts. One study showed that 13 percent of pathological gamblers have a history of suicide attempts. Another study through Gamblers Anonymous found that 48 percent of members had a history of suicidal thoughts if not attempts.
These staggering numbers are made even more disturbing as suicidal gamblers often do not exhibit any warning signs that they are at risk of suicide.
A Canadian study of completed suicides among problem gamblers found that more than half the victims were married and almost half were employed – two factors that are thought to be protective against suicide. Also, two thirds of the people had given no previous warning or indication to family members of their intent. This suggests that suicide risk is indeed harder to predict among problem gamblers than the general population.
In most cases, suicide was an impulsive act often accompanied by intoxication (30 percent of victims were intoxicated when they committed suicide).
Given the high rates of suicide, depression, substance abuse and family dysfunction that accompany addictions to gambling, I question the wisdom of governments promoting gambling in our communities.
While the profits of government funded lotteries and the taxes from casinos may bring income to the public coffers, is it worth the cost in human lives, broken relationships and misery in the increasing numbers of problem gamblers and their families?
Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.