Gambling Addiction

Dr Susan Byrne was interviewed by Wendy Grace about Gambling Addiction on Spirit Radio’s Morning Show on 1 June 2021. You can listen to it below or read the edited transcript.

Transcript of the radio interview (edited)

One of the things that has been noticeably increasing over the past year during this pandemic is the problem with addiction gambling. Now, you don’t have to watch TV for long, scroll through social media for long, before you see an ad encouraging you to gamble, but sometimes the information in terms of the risks of how addictive gambling can be isn’t really put out there and the fact that some people who engage in it can develop an addiction.

Well, my next guest has seen this rise in problem gambling in her work as a cognitive and behavioural therapist and addiction counsellor. It’s great to have with us Susan Byrne.

Well first of all, Susan, can you just tell us exactly how do you know that you have a problem with gambling? What are the kind of things to look out for?

OK. Nice to talk to you, Wendy. Well, problem gambling is also referred to as disordered gambling or gambling addiction, but it also comes under the impulsive control disorders. And what that means is that it is both compulsive and impulsive as all addictions are compulsive, therefore rewarding behaviours. And what happens with problem gambling is that our brain becomes stimulated, it looks for more dopamine and then we have the mood-altering emotional rewards that come with it. And, you know, the three cornerstones of problem gambling, as with all addictions, are that we would say you’re in one of three stages. You’re either (a) actively engaged in gambling itself, or (b) you’re preoccupied about when you can next have your, another, gamble, or (c) you’re recovering from an episode of gambling. And addiction is a very, very slow process; it’s very slow, very gradual, and it takes a period of time to develop. So we’re not looking at something that develops over, you know, a week or a month or a year.

So does that mean, Dr Byrne, that for some people it can be a slow boil? As in, it’s just something that you do recreationally and you don’t kind of realise it becoming a problem because it happened slowly over time for most people.

Absolutely that is how addictions creep up. They evolve very gradually, very slowly and, you know, there are some factors that we need to take into account. So, if you have a family history of any addiction, then obviously you’re going to be a little bit more predisposed. And then you have, you know, in gambling in particular, you have early exposure to it, you’e peer pressure. But what I see a lot of, Wendy, is where people are self-medicating or self-soothing through gambling; and they may be covering up something like depression or anxiety or OCD, and I would see a lot of ADHD particularly in male gamblers. But some of the signs and symptoms of someone who might be developing a gambling issue would be that they will be withdrawn from their family in particular. There would be a noticeable reduction in their social activities and socialising in general with friends. They would seek to become more isolated – they want to spend more time on their own. There would be things like excessive spending, excessive time on their smart phone, not meeting commitments in work or within the family, family relationships being damaged, personal relationships. And a big one around gambling addiction is secrecy around finances and money and, you know, something obvious like hiding bank statements on a computer, that kind of thing. And we need to remember that the nature of addiction are two things, like the bedrock of any addiction: lies and denial. And denial – when clients, people are in denial – it keeps them in their addiction longer, so it serves a purpose.

Yeah, because you’re going in on yourself and you’re not accountable to anyone but yourself if you’re hiding it. But is there a particular age group or demographic that’s affected more by gambling? I’m thinking as well just how much gambling has gone online and how easy it is to put in your card details or whatever. You can do it on your phone, your computer, so many different places – whereas, you know, 20 years ago you’d have to go into a betting shop.

Yes, it has changed, the demographics have definitely changed and so has the gender. So I think maybe if we went back even in the last 10 years it was male-dominated, you were looking at middle-aged groups. That has all changed significantly. I see clients coming into my clinic and they’re younger and younger. I have two 16 year olds at the moment with gambling issues/addictions. But I also have several women in their 50s and 60s who have developed gambling issues. And it is around, it has become definitely more accessible as you’ve said – a couple of years ago you were going into a betting office. Everything now can be done from a laptop, home computer, but in particular a smart phone.

You can be anywhere and you can say, “oh, I’ll go on for 5, 10 minutes.” And there you go, you’ve got that dopamine hit you were talking about earlier and spent, wasted, lost, whatever word you want to put on it, lots of money.

What do you say to someone then, Dr Byrne, for someone who’s listening and going, “yeah, I’m identifying with some of the things that you’re saying, but almost kind of naming it, or saying that I might have a problem, is the scariest thing to do.” What’s your advice?

OK, well you know, the definition of addiction – Patrick Carnes gives a brilliant definition of addiction and I use this with my clients all the time – it’s a repetitive, cyclical process which is: preoccupation, ritualisation, acting out, despair, and then we’re back into preoccupation. So it’s the lovely loop. But what we do know with the dopamine hit and with changing neural pathways, what we get when we’re addicted to anything (whether it’s a chemical or behavioural addiction) is comfort, excitement, escapism is a big one, and confidence. So what I would say is if you think you know you have a problem – and it could be as I said, Wendy, that you’re masking something else, so I would see a lot of mood disorders with addiction. Somebody doesn’t present with a gambling addiction on its own. You present with a gambling addiction with anxiety, depression, possibly mood disorder, possibly personality disorder, possibly ADHD. And if somebody out there is listening and they feel that “yes, I’m hitting some of those markers, I think what I thought was a hobby or something I was doing to spend a couple of hours getting some pleasure out of it is now out of control and is escalating.” The first thing I would suggest is they talk to someone they trust, even a family member or a friend, go to their GP, maybe book in with an addiction specialist – and I’m saying addiction specialist because you need somebody who’s specifically trained in the addictions. Go to the ACI website, which is the Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, and make an appointment, and go talk to somebody and have that consultation. And Wendy, what I would say also is, to people out there – there is no cure for addictions. Addictions are managed, but they can be managed really well with the right supports and through appropriate interventions people can make a really, really good recovery.

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