Will the Packers go to the Super Bowl this year? Wanna bet?

A casual sports bet may not appear dangerous to most people. However, wagering on some sort of game is now possible in every state except Utah and Hawaii, with casinos now capturing more dollars than movie, theater, opera and concert tickets combined.

As gambling has become more available and accepted, problem, or pathological, gambling has become one of our country’s most critical behavioral health problems. The costs of problem gambling – crime, bankruptcy, domestic violence, lost jobs, broken families – are estimated at about $307 million a year in Wisconsin alone. For most people, gambling provides a controlled, affordable form of entertainment. But for some, this can become a dangerous addiction. The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling reports approximately 333,000 Wisconsin residents have a gambling problem.

Dr. Edward Rubin gives insight into how gambling addiction can destroy lives.

For some people, gambling can become an addiction, with many of the same consequences as other addictions: inability to stop gambling once started; a preoccupation with gambling and with obtaining money to continue gambling; and the development of tolerance, or the need to gamble with more and more money to achieve the same level of satisfaction.

Problem gambling seems to develop in stages, beginning with the initial winning phase, when even occasional successes create in the gambler a sense of power, exhilaration and confidence that they can “beat the odds.” When the inevitable losing streak begins, gamblers will try to win back everything they have lost, all at once. “Chasing,” or betting larger amounts to make up for losses, is common.

Attempts to control the behavior are unsuccessful, and when the gambler is forced to reduce or stop gambling, he or she becomes restless and irritable. They begin to gamble more frequently, gamble alone and wager higher amounts, often covering up or lying about the extent of their gambling. Bills go unpaid, credit may become exhausted and relationships deteriorate.

At this point, some pathological gamblers “cross the line” into the desperation phase, when they may begin to do things that were previously unthinkable, such as writing bad checks, forgery or stealing from employers. The gambler often rationalizes that these are “short-term loans” that they will repay as soon as they win back their losses.

In spite of the increasingly negative effects on relationships, employment and finances, the compulsive gambler will ignore the consequences and continue the behavior that becomes more and more destructive.

For some, there is a third phase called the giving up phase, where pathological gamblers realize that they cannot get even and will never catch up, and they no longer even care. Playing itself is the only thing that matters. They want the action and excitement for its own sake and are looking to recapture the emotional high that was part of their early gambling experience.

It is not unusual for gamblers, in the second and third phases, to become depressed and even suicidal. Studies indicate that 75 percent of compulsive gamblers experience major depression in the later stages of their illness, when the gambler may withdraw from family and friends and may become increasingly dependent on alcohol or drugs. The individual is finally faced with four options: imprisonment, running away, committing suicide or getting help.

Although not impossible, it is difficult to change this behavior on your own. But there is help. The first steps are recognizing that your gambling is out of control and seeking help from others to help you change the behavior.

At Aurora Behavioral Health Services, our staff members are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of problem gambling. We begin with a thorough assessment of each person’s specific needs and develop a comprehensive, personalized treatment plan focused on achieving and maintaining a gambling-free lifestyle. This may include group therapy and support, individual and family counseling and relapse prevention planning.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, call Aurora Behavioral Health Services at (877) 666-7223 or the WCPG Hotline at 1-800-GAMBLE-5.

Edward Rubin, PsyD, is a psychologist at Aurora Sinai Medical Center Mental Health Services, Aurora Health Care. He specializes in the treatment of addictive disorders.


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