Spotting a problem gambler

Kimberly Gillan
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Image: Getty
Think your partner could have a problem with gambling? Here's how to deal with it.

Some people can manage the odd flutter on a horse race, sports match or poker machine without it having a major impact on their lives. But for up to 500,000 Australians, what starts as a bit of fun, rapidly morphs into an escape or coping mechanism that can have disastrous consequences.

Debt, depression and divorce are some of the common outcomes of problem gambling, but Associate Professor Samantha Thomas, a gambling researcher from the University of Wollongong, says only 15 percent of problem gamblers seek help.

"Problem gambling goes across the spectrum –– it can be anyone of any age or any gender who experiences this," she says.

Mind games

The lure of gambling appears to be related to the reward centre in our brains, which is more sensitive in some people.

"The research is now telling us that if people engage in something that gives them a reward, the reward centre in their brain is actually stimulated," says Sanja Cosic, psychologist and general manager at Gambler's Help, a free counselling service.

"We have some people who are more vulnerable to [gambling] than others but we don't know why."

Pokies are the real problem point, luring in 75 percent of problem gamblers using what psychologists call "intermittent reinforcement".

"They give you enough wins to keep you thinking you're going to keep winning," Cosic says.

Their bright lights and celebratory music don't help matters either.

"Say you play a multi-line machine that has 20 wins on it and you win nine, but you lose 11 of them, well the machine still makes a sound as though you've won," Cosic explains.

"Someone looking at it without being very discerning would think they'd won. Their brain registers that as a win but it's actually a loss."

The path to the problem

While every problem gambler's experience is different, Cosic says there are often similar patterns of behaviour.

"Usually they have attended a venue casually, then something has happened in their life and they've got a degree of stress so have started going back to that venue a bit more frequently and have won some money," she explains.

"There is a shift in thinking and they become 'habituated'."

And the more they play, the greater their chance of developing a problem.

Related:Your partner has a gambling problem... Now what?

Discovering the damage

For every problem gambler, between five and 10 people will be negatively affected –– and chances are they won't see it coming.

"Loved ones often come to see Gambler's Help when they have discovered they are in significant financial debt," Cosic says.

"It might be that their partner has re-mortgaged the house and spent all the equity and taken out loans." Most gamblers are experts at hiding their behaviour, however Cosic says there are warning signs that people can be aware of.

"Notice if suddenly your partner's behaviour is different –– are they more irritable or angry or picking fights for no reason?" she questions.

"People become preoccupied when they gamble –– often they get irritated when they lose and when they don't have enough money to gamble. All of those things are pretty big clues for anyone who is with them."

Withdrawing from socialising and activities they usually enjoy can also be a telltale sign.

"Once you're starting to develop a problem, you can quickly become isolated from friends and family," Associate Professor Thomas says.

Prevention is key

A good way to ensure gambling problems are nipped in the bud is for both partners to be across the finances.

"Some people are really unaware of their money," Cosic says.

"But if your money is involved, you really should be aware of what it is going towards." That way, if you spot black holes in the bank account, you'll be able to address the problem before it reaches epic proportions.

"We encourage people to come along for counselling early when they're thinking, 'I really didn't want to spend that much money that week'," Cosic says.

"If you address it early, you can put some things in place, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the issue."

More information and statistics:

Concerned about someone? Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through Gambler's Help. For free, confidential advice, call 1800 858 858 or visit

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Image: GettySpotting a problem gambler Image: GettyWhat to do when your partner has a gambling problem