Gambling is meant as entertainment. When it’s no longer fun, and when there is emotional pain or stress attached to it, it’s time to take a deeper look and ask if there could be a problem.
Americans love to bet on sports, and over the last 15 years the advent of online gambling, coupled with smartphone technology, has substantially increased the ability to gamble in an unregulated environment. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing states to legalize sports gambling has raised concerns that as more states get into the game, or, in this case games, more people will succumb to the potentially severe consequences associated with gambling disorder — the diagnosis once referred to as gambling addiction.
The need is to get out ahead of the problem, and UCLA is doing just that. A UCLA gambling disorder expert says that the best way to minimize harm from gambling expansion is to use newly generated revenue to strengthen support for existing problem gambling prevention and treatment programs. “If done properly, California has the opportunity to create a fair and regulated market for gambling on sports, in which, like alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, the state would be able collect revenues that previously would have gone uncollected,” says Timothy Fong, MD, codirector of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. “What’s important is that states that are legalizing sports gambling pass science-based legislation to ensure that such resources are available.”
The vast majority of people who gamble do so for entertainment purposes and suffer no lasting harm from the activity, Dr. Fong states. However, the UCLA Gambling Studies Program has found that nearly 4 percent of Californians have been negatively affected by gambling behaviors. To varying degrees, the disorder can damage personal relationships, limit productivity and compromise health through sleeplessness, lack of exercise, poor diet and use of substances to cope with the increased stress. Gambling disorder appears to affect the same regions of the brain as other addictions, manifesting in the same types of cravings, tolerance, symptoms of withdrawal, loss of control, irrational behavior and inability to stop, Dr. Fong explains.
He notes that, far more than disorders involving substances, a gambling problem is easily hidden. “You can’t spot it with the naked eye,” Dr. Fong says. “Unfortunately, by the time the problem is discovered, it is usually pretty severe, and considerable damage has been done.”
As with other addictive disorders, the individual with the problem often is the last to recognize it, Dr. Fong adds. “Gambling is meant as entertainment. When it’s no longer fun, and when there is emotional pain or stress attached to it, it’s time to take a deeper look and ask if there could be a problem,” he says.
The UCLA Gambling Studies Program helped create a state-funded treatment program in California, called the California Gambling Education and Treatment Services Program (CalGETS), now in its 10th year, which combines psychological, biological and social approaches to treating gambling disorder. While medications sometimes are used to treat gambling cravings as well as co-occurring psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety, the majority of treatments are psychological, focusing on cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based approaches to changing thoughts and behaviors. Over the longer term, patients are directed to 12-step support programs, such as Gamblers Anonymous and other forms of group therapy. Dr. Fong also explains how a focus on exercise, nutrition, sleep and finding more desirable and rewarding ways to spend time helps people in treatment regain their mental and physical health.
Within as little as two months, more than half of people who seek help for a gambling disorder through the state system report improvements in their quality of life, including improved emotional and physical well-being. “We know that the earlier in the course of their disorder that someone seeks treatment, the better the outcome,” Dr. Fong says. He recommends that anyone concerned about his or her own gambling or that of a family member call the 24-hour helpline, 1-800-GAMBLER, to be connected to an authorized CalGETS provider or program, which is a collaboration between the California Office of Problem Gambling and the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. Services through CalGETS are provided at no cost to the person seeking help.