Ask a professional counselor or psychiatrist to define problem gambling, and you’ll get a variety of definitions depending on that person’s level of training and practice. Ultimately, they would likely turn to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) to determine if a gambler displays any or all of the characteristics listed, and then classify them as at-risk, early problem or a pathological gambler.

While this is appropriate for clinical use, the general public doesn’t have the same knowledge and approach when defining problem gambling. They just know that there’s a problem, and that they, or someone they love, needs help related to their gambling habit.

It is the task of organizations such as the National Council on Problem Gambling and the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance is to help the public understand the issue of problem gambling in a way that resonates with the everyone, and provide hope and resources to help them solve the problem.

Late last year, Northstar sought to better understand public perceptions about gambling behaviors that were causing problems. In addition, we wanted to explore various ways to communicate this public health issue so that people would understand its implications and know how to take action.

The research, which included individual interviews and focus groups, showed that problem or compulsive gambling is not clearly understood by the general public. Any description of the behavior lacks the definitiveness or common understanding of terms such as alcoholism, drug addiction or other mental health issues.

One interesting finding was that the term “problem gambling” was not strong enough to completely define the severity of problems faced by some gamblers, their families and friends. Research participants preferred the use of phrases such as “gambling addiction” or “compulsive gambling” that they felt more fully described the problem. As one study participant said, “If it is an addiction then call it an addiction.” This feeling is somewhat contrary to the public awareness approach that has been taken over the years, where communications were developed primarily under the heading of “problem gambling.”

Another important, and positive, consensus among the group was that compulsive gambling is thought of as a treatable addiction caused by neurological issues in brain chemistry. While not being able to detail existing treatment resources, participants did define their expected outcome for treatment help – i.e., that the gambling addict would be able to recognize and accept their problem, learn how to deal with it, and take ongoing action to manage the issue.

However, while most people embrace the concept of gambling addiction, a small percent cling to the position that if a gambler really wanted to stop, they would.

The study also explored reactions to different communication approaches, addressing such questions as: Is this an emotional or intellectual message? How does this message affect how you see or view a problem gambler? How persuasive is this message? Would you seek help based on this message?

Ultimately the feedback from the participants clearly showed that messages should be hopeful, and directly address the fact that people with gambling problems can take responsibility for their problems, get help, and with the right treatment and support, achieve recovery.