Problem gambling: Why do some people become addicted?

Problem gambling: Why do some people become addicted?
Problem gambling: Why do some people become addicted?

Taking risks is part of human nature. Whether it is gambling on a slot machine or riding a skateboard, every day we engage in activities offering both a potential risk and a potential reward.

We are motivated to take these risks by the release of dopamine. This feel-good chemical activates the same pleasurable reward pathways in our brains as eating our favourite food, or having sex.

Risk-taking can help to advance the human race when it leads to entrepreneurship, innovation and enhanced creativity. But problems can arise when an increased desire to take risks causes harm.

This includes problem gambling, which is estimated to affect as many as 1% of the population. Recent attempts to tackle the issue include plans to ban internet betting with credit cards and making treatment more widely available.

Who is most likely to have a gambling problem?

Extreme gambling is recognised as a disorder by the World Health Organization.

Most people can enjoy placing an occasional bet, even if it means they lose some money. But some become problem gamblers, where the activity disrupts or compromises their lives and those of their families.

In 2016, the Gambling Commission estimated there were up to 340,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with many more individuals at risk.

Their report suggested problem gamblers were:

  • Five times more likely to be male than female
  • More likely to be unemployed than in work, studying or retired
  • Most likely to be aged 25 to 34 (if male)
  • More likely to be from a black or other minority ethnic background than from a white or Asian background (on a three-year view)
  • More likely to indicate signs of mental ill health
  • More likely to indicate signs of low wellbeing

In the year to March 2019, UK gamblers collectively lost about £14.4bn.

Signs that somebody may have a problem include feelings of anxiety or stress around their gambling habit, betting more than they can afford to lose, and gambling ever larger amounts of money to feel the same “high” as before.

The number of gambling-related hospital admissions in England has more than doubled in the last six years to a record high. This includes people whose gambling could lead them to carry out crimes, and cases of psychosis.

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