When Benson* first sought out WE CARE Community Services, the father of two had racked up more than $250,000 in gambling debts. Once a successful working professional, Benson, who is in his 40s, never dreamed his life would take this path.
What began as occasional visits to the casino to escape home tensions became a full-blown gambling addiction that devastated his finances and family life. When he borrowed money to cover his losses, he became further entrenched in the vicious cycle of gambling and debt.
Saddled with mounting debts and his personal relationships in tatters, Benson finally approached social service agency Credit Counselling Service (CCS) for help on debt and financial management. He was also referred to WE CARE where he received counselling individually and with his wife for a period of eight months. Today he is holding a regular job and working to repay his debts. His relationship with his wife and children is also on the mend.
Benson suffered from a gambling addiction. It is a mental health disorder that is often underreported and untreated due to social stigma and feelings of shame attached to it. As with physical illness, gambling addiction needs to be tackled with professional help and treatment.
Addictions fall into two broad groups: substance addictions and behavioural addictions. Substance addiction involves things you ingest or put into your body such as alcohol, drugs, nicotine, cough syrup and glue. Behavioural addiction, which can be just as debilitating as substance addiction, is associated with behaviours like gambling, pornography, gaming, shopping, shoplifting and binge-eating.
How does addiction develop?
WE CARE psychotherapist Yvonne Yuen explains, “Addiction begins with a substance or behaviour that gives a person pleasure. As with taking drugs, partaking in an addictive behaviour causes the body to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasurable feelings. This motivates people to repeat the behaviour, such as going another round at the blackjack table after one win. Over time, a person may need to repeat the behaviour in greater measures to derive the same pleasure – or the promise of pleasure.”
This is how addiction rewires the brain, changing its chemistry and functioning.
Addiction rewires the brain, changing its chemistry and functioning.
Things associated with the addiction can become “triggers”. For instance, a gambler addicted to jackpot machines will derive joy from the lights and sounds emitted by the machine. Just hearing the sounds of a jackpot machine will influence the gambler to seek out the nearest jackpot machine.
So when does gambling become a problem?
For many of us, gambling is something we indulge in occasionally, for example, playing blackjack or mah-jong with family and friends during Chinese New Year, or buying a lottery ticket for a shot at the big prize.
According to Ms Yuen, gambling becomes a problem in the following instances – when it is used as a means to escape unpleasant emotions such as stress or loss; when it becomes difficult or impossible to cut down or stop the habit; when we obsess about winning big and chasing losses; and when we abandon logic, values and relationships in order to continue gambling.
Gambling does not affect just the individual and his finances. Relationships with family members can also suffer under the strain of time and money lost through gambling, or when debtors turn up demanding for payment. Problem gamblers may become ashamed and angry when confronted by family and friends about their gambling habit, resulting in social isolation. Effects of a gambling problem can also spill into the workplace when it causes poor work performance and absenteeism.
Other tragic consequences include gambling suicide when the sufferer finds the pressures and isolation too much to bear.
Help is here
Individuals and families afflicted by problem gambling need not struggle alone. Seeking help early is the first step to arrest unhealthy gambling behaviours. Avenues for help include WE CARE which provides individual and family counselling, support groups such as Gambling Anonymous, and recovery programmes such as Self-Management and Recovery Training (or SMART Recovery) and Mindfulness In Recovery.
*Name has been changed for privacy.
The contributor is a Communications and Relations Manager at WE CARE Community Services Ltd.