Gambling involves risking something of value on an event involving chance (such as winning the jackpot in a slot machine) for the prospect of winning a prize. Skill can sometimes be used to improve the chances of winning. For example, knowledge of strategies can increase the likelihood of winning certain card games, or the ability to identify horses and jockeys may help predict probable outcomes in a horse race. But in general, gambling consists of activities in which skill can only partially reduce the odds of success and in which the chance of winning is truly random.
It is estimated that approximately 0.4-1.6% of the United States population meet diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling (PG). Statistically, women are more likely to develop PG than men. It is also believed that a higher percentage of women will experience PG in the form of nonstrategic or less interpersonally interactive forms of gambling such as bingo and slots, while men are more likely to have a problem with strategic forms of gambling, such as blackjack and poker.
Some people have problems with gambling because of their family history or genetic predisposition. It is also believed that compulsive gambling can be triggered by a specific situation or trigger, such as a financial crisis or the death of a loved one.
A number of different treatment options are available for individuals with a gambling disorder. Psychotherapy is a key component of treatment. The goal is to teach a person how to replace problematic gambling behaviors with healthy behaviors. Treatment can include psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on the unconscious factors that influence behavior; group therapy, in which people with similar problems describe and discuss their experiences; and cognitive-behavior therapy, in which a mental health professional helps a person challenge irrational beliefs, such as the notion that a string of losses or a near miss — two out of three cherries on a slot machine — indicates an imminent win.
In addition to psychotherapy, there are many other types of treatment that have been successfully used with people who have a gambling disorder. For example, family therapy can be helpful for restoring a family’s relationships. It can also be effective for teaching children and teenagers about the risks of gambling. A parent with a gambling disorder can also learn how to set appropriate boundaries in managing money.
It is important to seek treatment if you suspect that you have a gambling disorder or that someone close to you has a problem. Inpatient or residential treatment and rehab programs are available for those who need them. This type of treatment offers round-the-clock support and is often necessary for those with severe gambling problems. Those with a mild or moderate problem may benefit from outpatient treatment, which is generally less intensive. The first step in seeking help is to contact a mental health professional. This may be a psychiatrist or psychologist with expertise in treating gambling disorders, or it may be a family counselor or social worker.