How Gambling Addictions and Mental Health Issues Feed Off Each Other

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Compulsive gambling at FairgoCasino, also known as gambling disorder, is classified in the DSM-5 as a behavioral addiction characterized by difficulty controlling impulses to gamble despite negative consequences. An estimated 2-4% of Americans struggle with this condition. For those afflicted, gambling frequently leads to financial ruin, relationship problems, declines in mental health, and even suicide in severe cases.

The Link Between Gambling and Depression/Anxiety

Gambling problems regularly co-occur alongside issues like depression and anxiety. Per a 2016 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, over 50% of disordered gamblers also battle mood disorders or anxiety disorders. The rates of co-occurrence are notably higher among those seeking treatment for gambling issues, specifically.
This overlap is attributed to both directions of causation. On one hand, the stress and financial consequences stemming from excessive gambling take a toll on mental health over time. Individuals may experience:
  • Hopelessness/despair over gambling losses
  • Extreme anxiety when trying to recoup losses
  • Guilt/shame over deceiving loved ones to hide gambling behaviors

On the other flip side, those struggling with untreated depression or anxiety may turn to gambling as a problematic coping mechanism. Features of gambling serve to temporarily “medicate” negative emotions and provide distraction from real-world problems. This escape is short-lived, however, since the act of gambling ultimately exacerbates financial and relationship troubles in the long run.

Condition % w/ Co-Occurring Gambling Disorder
Major Depressive Disorder 37.9%
Generalized Anxiety Disorder 37.4%
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 20.5%

The Role of Impulsivity

One factor believed to link gambling disorder and mental health conditions is impulsivity. Many studies confirm that problem gamblers demonstrate higher levels of impulsive behavior compared to recreational gamblers and non-gamblers.
Impulsivity refers to difficulty controlling urges, impatience, limited foresight when making decisions, and preference for immediate gratification. These tendencies make it challenging to resist the temptation to chase losses or quit while ahead when gambling.
Notably, impulsivity and poor impulse control are also common among those with ADHD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse issues. This shared trait may help explain the high rates of gambling problems observed among those with these conditions. Up to 60% of individuals with bipolar disorder also struggle with co-occurring gambling addiction.

Seeking Integrated Treatment

Given the interplay between gambling disorder and mental health, integrated treatment addressing both conditions concurrently is often recommended. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that focuses on identifying distorted thought patterns driving problematic behaviors. CBT also teaches coping strategies to manage unpleasant emotions in healthier ways.
For example, a gambling addict with depression may come to recognize that their belief they can win back losses by continuing to gamble is irrational and counterproductive. Therapy helps them challenge this belief and ultimately resist the urge to chase losses.
Addressing just one issue without the other often leads to poorer outcomes. Treating the gambling addiction without addressing underlying mood disorders may just leave the individual turning to other outlets to self-medicate their depression. Similarly, treating the mental health condition alone won’t necessarily curb the addictive gambling behaviors exacerbating financial and relationship problems.

The Vicious Cycle of Addiction and Mental Health

In summary, disordered gambling and diagnoses like depression or anxiety often fuel one another in a vicious cycle. The stress of gambling losses strains mental health over time. Those struggling to cope then gamble more to provide an escape, though this escape is temporary and ultimately fuels further decline in functioning and mood.
These conditions mutually reinforce each other, demonstrating why integrated treatment is imperative. With professional help, this cycle can be broken, paving the path to recovery.

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