Lana PictureCounselor’s Corner is a recurring feature that discusses common questions raised by counselors seeking to learn more about problem gambling and how they can identify a possible gambling addiction in their clients. Lana Nelson, psychotherapist at CentraCare, addresses this column’s question.

Q: I’m a drug and alcohol counselor. What client behaviors might suggest a gambling problem?

Problem gambling often stems from a complex mix of issues that your client may be experiencing, including interpersonal, intrapersonal and health challenges. The comorbidity rate for some disorders among problem gamblers may be as high as 90 percent.[1] Therefore, it’s worth probing your client’s behavior to determine if gambling addiction may be present.

Gambling addiction is referred to as the invisible disease or hidden illness because unlike other diseases or addictions, there are no obvious tell-tale symptoms; there are no physical signs, no needle marks, no evidence from blood or breath tests, and no dilated pupils. Problem gamblers typically deny or minimize the problem. They also go to great lengths to hide their gambling. For example, problem gamblers often withdraw from their loved ones, sneak around, and lie about where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to.

Some of these subtle warning signs are well protected by the gambler. The following are a few red flags[2] (Cutter & Smith, 2008):

  1. Secrecy over money and finances
  2. New desire to control household finances
  3. There are overdue or unpaid household bills
  4. Unexplained loans or cash advances
  5. Lack of money, despite the same income and expenses
  6. Unusual increase in credit card activity
  7. Stealing or embezzling from work
  8. Bouncing of checks
  9. Refinancing
  10. Missing jewelry, cash or valuables from the home
  11. Borrowing money from friends, co-workers and family members
  12. Dwindling savings or assets
  13. Missing bank or credit card statements
  14. Calls or letters from bill collectors
  15. Unexplained cash

While problem gambling involves a pattern of repeated gambling behavior that disrupts the gambler’s life, pathological gambling, addictive gambling, gambling dependence, disordered gambling or compulsive gambling is a progressive disorder causing a psychologically uncontrollable preoccupation and urge to gamble. Individuals eventually lose the ability to control the impulse to gamble. This results in excessive gambling, which can compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or educational/employment/retirement pursuits. Problem gambling is currently recognized by the American Psychological Association as an addictive disorder.

[1]  McCormick, Russo & Ramirez, et al., (1984). Affective disorders among pathological gamblers seeking treatment. American Journal of Psychiatry, pp. 141, 215 – 218.

[2] Cutter, D. & Smith, M. (2008). Gambling addiction and problem gambling: signs, symptoms and treatment.