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How do I know if someone has a problem with gambling and what can I do to help?


Author: Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research


People have been gambling for thousands of years and in almost every human culture. They engage in gambling behaviours for different reasons: to socialize, have fun, win money, help charities, cope with life pressures or even escape their lives for a moment with the dreams of something better, among other reasons. Like food, sex, and other feel-good things in life, gambling can be a source of pleasure and enjoyment for many people in our society. But if gambling becomes a focus in life, wellbeing may be seriously impacted.

British Columbians seem more interested in gambling than ever. A 2014 study found increases in participation in nine out of 12 types of gambling, including playing the lottery, betting on sports, and internet gambling. Playing the lottery was the most popular form of gambling. Problem gambling, however, declined. Roughly 125,000 British Columbians were at moderate or high risk of gambling problems. That's 3.3% of the population, down from 4.6% in 2008.

When is gambling not just for 'fun' anymore?

But how do we know which behaviours spell "fun" and which ones mean "proceed with caution"? Research suggests that there are particular gambling-related experiences that suggest we're slipping over a boundary. These include:

  • betting beyond our budget,

  • chasing losses (e.g., going back another day to win back money),

  • needing to spend more to get the same feeling of fun, and

  • borrowing money or selling things to get gambling money.

Studies suggest moderate-risk gamblers are much more likely to spend time at casinos, participate in private games, or play bingo than non-problem gamblers. Problem gamblers may be more likely to buy short term speculative stock or commodity shares and engage in internet gambling. They are also more likely to gamble large amounts in a single day and spend more (or less) in a year depending on how things are going in their lives. These gamblers may feel guilty or anxious about gambling, and may sense (or have been told by loved ones) that they have a problem.

Gambling can harm you and your family

Problem gambling is not just about losing money. Gambling problems can affect a person's whole life. Gambling is a problem when it:

  • Causes problems with your family or friends

  • Gets in the way of work, school or other activities

  • Harms your mental or physical health

  • Hurts you financially

  • Damages your reputation

Though a small percentage of people have difficulty controlling their gambling, there can be significant impacts on these players and their families. The 'rush' associated with gambling has been related to that associated with drugs. For people who have problems with gambling, it can take progressively greater risk-taking and increasing bets and potential wins to regain the high experienced early in their gambling history. Players may also bet to regain losses in the hope of 'winning big.' This can lead to a cycle of bet, lose, chase losses, win, gamble, lose, that is similar to dependence that happens to some people who use drugs. As a player becomes caught in this cycle and the need to gamble grows, they may spend money meant for rent, food, and bills. Players may also borrow money and put themselves and their families in debt. This can put an extreme strain on family relationships and even day to day survival. Problematic gambling has led to bankruptcy, divorce and health issues such as anxiety and depression and occasionally, suicide.

How can I help someone who may have a gambling problem?

People who develop problems with gambling, video gaming, or any other behaviour may be missing or unable to confront something important in their lives. They may need compassionate help in understanding how to address these issues. Though problem gambling is experienced by the individual, it can affect many, and is the result of a complex set of factors. The community culture and institutions we interact with, family and societal values, as well as the whole industry of gambling (the marketing of lotteries and casinos, their role in engaging consumers, etc.) influence our gambling behaviour. These factors interact to create the circumstances, choices and chances of our life, and contribute to whether we gamble or not and to what extent.

If you would like to learn more


About the author

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The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, formerly CARBC, is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. The institute is dedicated to the study of substance use in support of community-wide efforts aimed at providing all people with access to healthier lives, whether using substances or not. For more, visit


Q&A is for readers who want to take charge of their well-being, support a friend or loved one, find good help, or just learn more about mental health and substance use. Here, the information and resource experts at HeretoHelp will answer the questions that we’re asked most often. We'll offer tips and information, and we'll connect you with help in BC, Canada. If you have a question you’d like to ask, email us at [email protected], tweet @heretohelpbc, or log in to HeretoHelp and post a comment on this page.


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