The Relationship Between Problem Gambling and Suicide

Apr 30, 2024

Gambling addiction, often referred to as compulsive or pathological gambling, is a severe mental health condition characterized by an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite the negative consequences it brings. Unlike casual gambling, where individuals may indulge for fun or entertainment, addiction creates a cycle of compulsive behavior that can have devastating effects on a person's life. These effects can manifest in financial ruin, relationship breakdowns, and a profound sense of despair. Perhaps the most alarming consequence of gambling addiction is its link to an increased risk of suicide. As individuals lose control over their gambling habits, they may face overwhelming guilt, hopelessness, and isolation, leading them down a dangerous path. Addressing gambling addiction requires a multi-faceted approach, encompassing therapy, support networks, and societal awareness to prevent these tragic outcomes.

Understanding Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, also known as gambling disorder, is a serious mental health condition characterized by an inability to control gambling urges despite negative consequences. It disrupts daily life and can lead to financial ruin, damaged relationships, and even suicide.

Gambling Addiction Overview

The Mayo Clinic defines gambling disorder as the uncontrollable desire to continue gambling despite the consequences.

Here are some common signs of gambling addiction:

  • Need for increasing amounts of money to gamble: As addiction progresses, individuals need to wager more money to experience the same level of excitement ("chasing the high").

  • Preoccupation with gambling: Gambling dominates thoughts and behaviors, even when not actively engaged in it.

  • Unsuccessful attempts to control or stop gambling: Despite wanting to quit, individuals find it extremely difficult to resist gambling urges.

  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to stop: Abstaining from gambling can lead to withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, and physical discomfort.

  • Gambling to cope with negative emotions: Gambling is used as a way to escape stress, anxiety, or boredom.

  • Chasing losses: Trying to win back lost money by gambling more.

  • Lying to conceal gambling behavior: This is done to protect the addiction from loved ones.

  • Jeopardizing relationships, work, or education due to gambling: Gambling takes priority over other important aspects of life.

  • Relying on others for money to gamble: Individuals may resort to borrowing or stealing to fund their gambling habit.

Gambling Addiction Statistics

Statistics around gambling addiction are hard to pin down but research suggests it affects a significant portion of the population. Some studies suggest gambling addiction impacts 1% of the population. Other estimates suggest a larger percentage or about 5 million people meet the criteria for compulsive gambling. Either way, these numbers are growing as gambling has become more prevalent with the rise of gambling apps.

While gambling addiction can affect anyone, some groups are at higher risk. These include:

  • Men are more likely than women to develop gambling addiction.

  • Young adults are a particularly vulnerable population. Nearly two-thirds of individuals 12-18 say they have gambled in the previous year.

  • Individuals with a history of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are at increased risk. 

  • People with a family history of gambling problems are more susceptible.

Psychological and neurological factors contributing to addiction

Gambling addiction involves a complex interplay of psychological and neurological factors. Here's a glimpse into what might be happening:

  • Reward system: Gambling activates the brain's reward system, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. This reinforces gambling behavior, making individuals seek out the "high" it provides.

  • Loss aversion: Humans are wired to feel losses more intensely than gains. This can make gamblers chase losses in an attempt to avoid the negative emotions associated with losing.

  • Impulsivity: Difficulty controlling impulses is a common feature of gambling addiction. Individuals may gamble impulsively to relieve stress or boredom, even if they know it will have negative consequences.

  • Cognitive distortions: Gamblers may develop unrealistic beliefs about their chances of winning, making it harder to resist gambling urges.

Understanding the interplay of these factors is crucial for developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for gambling addiction.

The Link between Gambling Addiction and Suicide

Gambling addiction can have devastating consequences, not just financially, but also emotionally and psychologically. In the most tragic cases, it can even lead to suicide.

Suicide rates among individuals with gambling addiction

Research paints a concerning picture. Studies show a significantly higher rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts among individuals struggling with gambling addiction.

Around 50% of individuals seeking help  for gambling disorder have suicidal ideation, and about 17% have attempted suicide. When considering all addictions, gambling addiction has the highest suicide attempt and completion, two times greater than those addicted to drugs and alcohol. It is further estimated that 5% of all suicides are gambling related on some level. This is in stark contrast to the 0.6% of the population that attempts suicide yearly.

Factors that increase suicide risk in gambling addicts

Several factors contribute to the heightened risk of suicide in individuals with gambling addiction:

Financial ruin and debt: Gambling addiction often leads to financial hardship. Mounting debts, loss of savings, and even homelessness can create overwhelming feelings of despair and hopelessness. Struggling individuals might feel like they have nothing left to lose, increasing suicide risk.

Strained personal relationships: The secrecy and impulsivity associated with gambling addiction can damage relationships with loved ones. Shame, guilt, and broken promises can lead to isolation and a sense of being alone in the struggle. This lack of support can make suicidal thoughts seem like the only escape.

Mental health issues (depression, anxiety, etc.): Gambling addiction frequently co-occurs with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions further exacerbate feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which are known risk factors for suicide. 34% of people with a gambling disorder also suffer from PTSD.

Impulsivity and poor coping mechanisms: Gambling addiction stems from impulsive behaviors and a reliance on gambling as a coping mechanism for stress or negative emotions. When gambling fails to provide relief, individuals with these vulnerabilities may turn to suicidal thoughts or actions as a way to cope with their overwhelming feelings.

Signs of Suicidal Ideation

One of the most critical aspects of preventing suicide among individuals struggling with gambling addiction is recognizing the warning signs of suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts, plans, or preoccupation with ending one's life. While not everyone who experiences suicidal ideation will attempt suicide, it is a serious risk factor that should never be ignored.

Some common signs of suicidal ideation in gambling addicts include:

  • Verbal cues: Making statements like "I wish I wasn't here" or "Everyone would be better off without me." Talking about feeling hopeless, worthless, or being a burden.

  • Changes in behavior: Withdrawing from friends and family, giving away prized possessions, engaging in reckless or self-destructive behavior.

  • Mood changes: Increased feelings of sadness, anxiety, irritability, or sudden calmness after a period of depression (which could indicate a decision to end their life).

  • Sleep disturbances: Insomnia or sleeping too much.

  • Loss of interest: No longer enjoying activities or hobbies they once found pleasurable.

  • Preoccupation with death: Writing about death, researching methods of suicide, or making preparations such as updating a will or life insurance policy.

It's important to note that these signs can vary from person to person, and some individuals may not exhibit any outward signs at all. If you suspect someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation, it's crucial to reach out and offer support, and encourage them to seek professional help immediately.

What counts as suicidal ideation?

Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts about or preoccupation with ending one's own life. This can range from fleeting thoughts to detailed planning or fixation on methods of suicide. Any degree of suicidal thoughts should be taken seriously as a warning sign.

When is someone considered suicidal?

An individual is considered actively suicidal if they have a specific plan and intent to end their life. This goes beyond just having passive thoughts about dying. Signs include acquiring means to attempt suicide (obtaining weapons, pills, etc.), giving away possessions, saying goodbye to loved ones, and other concrete preparations. At this stage, immediate intervention is critical to prevent a suicide attempt.

Seeking Help

Seeking professional help is crucial for overcoming a gambling addiction. There are various resources and treatment options available that can assist individuals in regaining control over their lives and finances.

One of the first steps is to consult with a mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist or counselor specializing in addiction treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used and effective approach for treating gambling addiction. It helps individuals identify and modify the thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their addictive tendencies.

In addition to individual therapy, joining a support group can provide a valuable sense of community and accountability. Organizations like Gamblers Anonymous offer meetings where people can share their experiences, struggles, and coping strategies with others who understand the challenges of overcoming gambling addiction.

For some individuals, medication may be prescribed to manage co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, which can exacerbate gambling problems. However, medication should always be used in conjunction with therapy and lifestyle changes.

It's also essential to address any financial issues caused by gambling addiction. Credit counseling services can help individuals develop a plan to manage debt and repair their credit. Setting up barriers, such as self-exclusion from casinos or online gambling sites, can also be an effective preventative measure.

Recovering from a gambling addiction is a journey that requires perseverance, support, and a willingness to make significant lifestyle changes. With the right resources and professional help, individuals can regain control and rebuild their lives.


Sources:

Compulsive gambling - Symptoms & causes - Mayo Clinic

Gambling - Rutgers Addiction Research Center (RARC)

Gambling Addiction Is Now at an All-Time High | Money

How gambling affects the brain and who is most vulnerable to addiction

Gambling Addiction: Resources, Statistics, and Hotlines | University of Nevada, Reno

Suicide Risk - Nevada Council on Problem Gambling

https://www.naadac.org/assets/2416/2019NWRC_John_Bundrick_PowerPoint.pdf

Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years — United States, 2015–2019 | MMWR

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