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‘Gambling is by and large a very secretive addiction’

Gambling disorder was first non-substance-related addiction to be included in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

As the government proceeds with plans to ban day-time gambling ads, it highlights that more needs to be done to combat gambling addiction for all generations.

The recently published Institute of Public Health report, Children and Gambling: evidence to inform regulation and responses in Ireland, found that more than one-in-five 16-year-olds in Ireland gambled for money in the past 12 months – with a quarter of those gambling online.

Once the Gambling Regulation Bill 2022 is enacted, a new statutory body known as the Gambling Regulatory Authority of Ireland will be responsible for the licensing and regulation of gambling services in Ireland. This is a significant public health measure as gambling can destroy lives and as the report suggests, boys make up the overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of 16-year-olds who meet the criteria for problem gambling. As a society, there is a responsibility to protect children and vulnerable people from the difficulties and harms associated with gambling and to further support those with problem gambling behaviour.

Gambling addiction has long been stigmatised with societal stereotypes that a gambling addiction is caused by controllable factors associated with a flawed character. Negative attitudes such as being “irresponsible” or “greedy”, and the social isolation created by a lack of understanding of addiction, can lead to a narrative of self-stigma and blame directly impacting a person’s route to recovery. However, gambling addiction is a serious disorder that requires support, understanding and a necessity to be destigmatised.


Gambling disorder was the first non-substance-related addiction to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), recognising it as a serious condition that can cause significant impairment and stress on a person and their family. While many factors can contribute to a gambling addiction, the thrills and highs of gambling have a competitive lure along with the praise for being a successful gambler with every apparent win.

Yet, there is no easy money with gambling and the highs are often met with dangerous lows. “As with many addictions, gambling addicts often begin with doing a small bet,” says Frank Harkin a counsellor and member of the Addiction Counsellors of Ireland.

“One person told me his first bet was on the Grand National when he was about 17. He put on a bet of 50p and won. He gambled with control for a few years, but when he lost his job, he started to gamble more to try to make money. But then, of course, very few profit from gambling. They lose money and things get worse when they start chasing their losses.”

The continuous cycle of needing a win when a loss occurs, perpetuates a gambler’s need for money which is overshadowed by the addiction and its related disruptive habits. This can lead to “lying, cheating, stealing, asking for loans and not paying them back, trying to get credit or credit cards,” understands Harkin. “Anything they can do to be able to bet. However, the addiction can be well advanced before things become noticeable. There are no outward manifestations such as intoxication. Gambling is by and large a very secretive addiction.”

Gambling is also a relatively diverse activity with many not equating a gambling problem to something like playing the lottery, buying shares, or making a bet with a friend, but as Harkin says, “playing any game of chance for a stake is gambling. Ask the investors in Anglo and other banks, many of whom lost their retirement nest in what they were told was an investment.”

Considering gambling can also be a solo pursuit, it is not always obvious when an addiction begins or how advanced the addiction can be. “For years, most of us had to go to the bookies to gamble,” says Harkin who recognises that this changed with online betting. “Problem gamblers would move around. If they lived in rural areas, they often went to another town to gamble. People would do the football pools and many gamble on what we call ‘amusement machines’. A lot of it can be harmless, but there are people who gamble their wages each week on 5c slot machines.”

As with other addictions, there is often a reward associated with the continuous nature of the activity as the brain reacts. With gambling, the reward is often assumed to be monetary but often it is simply the thrill of making a bet and the associated emotional high. “The action appears to stimulate the reward section of the brain called the mesolimbic system,” says Harkin. “This can cause a release of extra dopamine in the brain and may be what brings satisfaction to the gambler, just as drugs and alcohol can do for others. Even the thought of gambling can provide stimulation. Taking the risk can increase adrenalin and cortisol levels.”

Signs of gambling addiction are varied but can include insomnia, quick to temper, mood swings, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, avoiding friends and family, a preoccupation with gambling, and dishonest behaviour. Gambling can also be associated with other short- and long-term effects that may result in additional addictions, such as alcohol, drugs or other harmful behaviours being used as coping mechanisms to manage the stress of gambling.

As there can often be other causes to some of these similar symptoms and behaviours and with varied underlying causes for gambling addiction, Harkin advises that a person consult a professional such as a GP or counsellor to understand what is occurring for them. If a compulsive gambler continued to win, it is still considered an addiction. Gamblers have trouble controlling their gambling habits whether they win or lose, gambling often when they cannot afford to, and remaining guarded about their actions.

“The compulsive and secretive nature of gambling can make it difficult for people to give up gambling,” says Harkin. “But as with other addictions, abstinence would be the recommended goal because controlled gambling rarely lasts. Many treatment centres deal with gamblers as well as drug and alcohol abusers, and compulsive spenders which can be similar to gambling. Some people manage to overcome their addictions by themselves, but the vast majority need professional help.”

Harkin advises that it is best to find a counsellor or psychotherapist with specific training in addictions. “Counselling techniques for addictions often require the counsellor to be more directive and challenging,” he says. “Self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous are good, but often not enough in themselves.

“Most of all, the gambler must want to stop. The counsellor would then work with the person and create a care plan to help them achieve their goal. This would include things like handing over credit or debit cards to significant others, banning access to cash or bank accounts. If a gambler or drug abuser can find the right therapist, they can often get their lives back in order, so it’s important to realise that professional help is available and that many people have got their lives back in order.”

While breaking the cycle of gambling is difficult, support is available and the addiction can be managed with the help and support of friends of family, medical professionals, and addiction counsellors.

Addiction series

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family