Gambling – What is it, Why it Can Be Dangerous, and How to Get Help


Whether it’s buying a lottery ticket, placing a bet on horse racing or sports events, or playing the pokies, most people gamble at some stage in their lives. However, gambling can be harmful and a sign of an addiction. It can also affect relationships and cause financial stress. This article explains what gambling is, why it can be dangerous, and how to get help.

Gambling involves risking money or other possessions on an event with a random outcome, such as a lottery draw, scratchcard or two-up, or a casino game like roulette, baccarat or blackjack. It also includes speculating on business or insurance policies, stock markets or political elections. It may be hard to recognise if you or someone close to you has a problem with gambling because it’s often a hidden activity. Symptoms can start in adolescence or later on in adulthood. Family members may notice changes in their behaviour or financial problems.

Research shows that some people are genetically predisposed to gambling problems, for example having an underactive brain reward system or being impulsive. It’s also known that trauma or social inequality can be a risk factor. The development of a gambling disorder can also be triggered by environmental factors such as living in a high-risk area or having poor work, housing or health conditions.

In the past, psychiatrists have regarded pathological gambling as a compulsion rather than an addiction, but in a landmark decision this year, the psychiatric community moved it to the same chapter in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as other impulse-control disorders, such as kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (hair pulling). This shift is due to better understanding of biology and the evidence that some people are prone to addictive gambling behaviour.

Controlling your finances and reducing the amount of money you gamble are important steps to take. Only ever gamble with disposable income and don’t use money that you need to pay bills or rent. It’s also a good idea to find new ways to relieve boredom or unpleasant feelings, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, joining a book club or sports team, or practicing relaxation techniques.

Talking about your gambling problem with someone who won’t judge you is a great way to help yourself. This could be a trusted friend, family member or professional counsellor. You can also join a support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, which uses peer support to help you stay free from gambling. There are also a number of state and national helplines and assistance services available, including credit counselling. See the Better Health Channel fact sheet ‘Gambling – financial issues’ for more information.