Gambling addiction triggers the same areas of the brain as narcotic drugs. So it is also a mental disorder, not a lack of ‘willpower’ finds, PRITHA BANERJEE
A roll of a dice, the clanking of jackpot slot, the crinkle of the winning card or lottery ticket—it’s a dream every gambler dreams of: winning it all. Those who like to take their chances with luck, usually have a problem in hitting pause in their brain function when it comes to a quick gamble—and they do not know the fine line of difference between gambling and gambling too much.
“Every time I spent money on a gambling site, I assured myself this would be the last time, and that this time I would hit jackpot. It’s only after having lost all my savings and never winning the jackpot, I realized that maybe gambling is not for me,” says a 24-year-old recovering gambling addict. He was introduced to an online gambling site, Bet365, by a friend when he was only 17. The amount of money this 24-year-old started betting only increased as he came to know about more such websites. “I lost over Rs 50,000 before I even thought that I should stop,” he added.
Gambling in India has a long, even mythological connection. Every one of us have been exposed to gambling in one form or the other at some point in our lives. ‘Teen patti’ is an important part of Diwali ritual in our culture, and even takes religious significance in some households; so children are exposed, at an nascent age, to gambling by their parents. And who can forget the famous roll of dice in Mahabharata where Dhritarashtra bets Draupadi as a property?
Though gambling is mostly harmless, it’s an out-of-control way of life for some. This is where it has turned into addiction. “Most of my friends still have not realised that they have a gambling problem. We used to gamble occasionally when we were in college—some of us continued and lost jobs and relationships. We have now become untrustworthy, and are constantly on the verge of taking too many risks,” says the recovering addict.
“My first sports bet was when I was 17 years old. My brother won a lot of money from a website. I feel it’s the worst that can happen to anyone who is new to betting. It went on for a while; there were some winnings, more losing of course. Finally, I took a stand and gave up,” says Rishab*, a 21-year-old college student, who came across a betting site while playing football games online.
Gambling, when turns excessive has crossed into addiction territory. “It is a disorder because it falls into the obsessive-compulsive spectrum of mental health illnesses. Most often such people do not accept their problem, till something colossal takes place. Even then, a deeper acceptance and understanding are difficult,” claims Dr Fabian Almeida, Consultant Psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital, Kalyan. This lack of understanding and acceptance lead to severe personal and/or social consequences. According to Dr Almeida, the urge to gamble in an addict becomes so great that tension can only be relieved by more gambling.
Pathological gamblers usually progress from occasional gambling to habitual gambling; they begin to take more and more risks—personally and financially. The first step to do here is damage control and harm reduction. “They, or their caregivers, are made to understand the illness, the gravity of the problem and then provided with options of treatment programmes: counseling or rehabilitation services, that need to be urgently explored. Anti-obsessive medications are the first line treatment for such disorders, as depression is often a common sequel to compulsive gambling,” exclaims Dr Almeida.
It’s all in the brain
In gamblers’ brains, making a wager is akin to taking drugs in drug addicts. It is because the brain secretes dopamine—the happy hormone—that gives a feeling of satisfaction and overall wellness.
“When people get addicted to gambling, or drugs, their brains are so awash in dopamine that eventually the brains adapt by becoming less responsive to its effects. As a result, people build up a tolerance to that substance of addiction—food, drugs, gambling—requiring more and more amounts to get high. When separated from the addictive substance, they show withdrawal symptoms: feeling physically ill, shaking uncontrollably, even become sleep deprived,” says Dr Archana Sharma, clinical psychiatrist. Patients with addictive profiles often have symptoms of depression, as well as antisocial personality disorders and display narcissistic traits. “Patients with bipolar disorder can get into pathological gambling during their manic mood swings,” avers Dr Almeida. There are a few basic signs of a compulsive gambler like restlessness, excessive thoughts, lying, losing job and relationships.
Genetics also play a role in furthering addictive personalities; sometimes even children pick up such a habit due to lack of supervision. Apart from that, low socioeconomic status, conduct disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), unemployment and borderline intelligence can contribute to pathological gambling.
All bets are off
“Admitting that you have a problem, or may have a problem, is the first step to recovery. Unfortunately, this realisation normally surfaces when a person has hit rock bottom,” says Dr. Sharma.
When an addict walks into a psychiatrist’s clinic, the first step is to take a detailed history to understand the personality ‘type’. “Deviant Personality Disorders respond well to insight-oriented counseling. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is widely used to help the patient understand their faulty behaviours and its ramifications for positive modifications. Medications, mostly Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and mood stabilizers are used to balance the neurological disequilibrium. Associated mental and physical problems get the necessary line of treatment,” explains Dr Almeida.
Pathological gambling is a chronic disorder, just like alcohol or drug addiction which tends to get worse without treatment. “Most people don’t recognise compulsive gambling as a disorder, which is why there is a stigma attached to the treatment. There is a need to spread mental health awareness for disorders like this to reintegrate the patients back to the society. Reinforcing positive behaviours and appreciating levels of effective change in the patient, no matter how small, are all steps in the right direction,” explains Dr Almeida.
According to the doctor, more self-help support groups for individual and group psychotherapy are needed. “Gambling Anonymous is a support system that works on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they have been doing a lot of good work with the community. Many psychiatrists, too, run support groups in their private clinics for people suffering from such disorders,” informs Dr Almeida.
According to some studies, to decrease impulsive behaviour and increase stability, a person can do yoga, do physical exercises and brain exercises. With the help of these tools, many recovering addicts are able to prevent relapse and gain control over their lives after undergoing the right treatment.
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