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The serious side of gambling

Bobby Foley | Interrobang | Lifestyles | October 17th, 2011

Gambling is defined as the risk of something of value in a game or contest where the outcome is affected by chance. Problem gambling is defined by the impact that your gambling and behaviour has on your life, and on those around you. And problem gambling has become a growing concern among youth in Southern Ontario.

Problem gambling is more common and more harmful than people realize, said Heather Elliott, Program Coordinator for problem gambling and Heartspace at Addiction Services of Thames Valley in London, whose counselling background began in substance abuse.

"There are similarities and differences between substance use and gambling," she said. "If you look at both of them on a very basic, fundamental level, it is often about coping strategies. And with youth and younger people, they're not always gambling with money. Sometimes it's about possessions, or that's their way of bonding, of coming together."

People aged 14 to 24 are twice as likely to have gambling problems as adults or seniors. In fact, some 25,000 to 30,000 young people are problem gamblers — males tend to be involved with "active" gambling like poker and similar card games, females are just as involved with "passive" games like slots or scratch tickets.

And while many realize that gambling is risking money or possessions, it's rare that people realize that for young people — particularly postsecondary students - one of the most valuable things being sacrificed is their time.

"Students need time to do homework," Elliott said. "They may be missing classes, missing sleep, perhaps they have a part-time job. When you look at consequences of gambling, it's looking at what impact it has had on your personal health — maybe you can make it to your classes, but then the rest of your time is spent gambling or gaming, so now you may be putting on weight or not getting enough exercise."

In fact, one of the telltale signs that someone you love may be caught up in problem gambling is that he or she begins to appear exhausted all the time, possibly tired from hours lost to gambling. According to Elliott, a big concern is that problem gamblers experience "brownouts," similar to people with alcohol or substance abuse problems.

"You completely lose track of all time and the value of money. It's called Jacobs' Dissociative State," she explained. "Mary tells her family she's going out to get a loaf of bread and a bag of milk, and she's gone for four hours. She comes back with the loaf of bread and bag of milk and they say, 'Where have you been for the last four hours?' She says, 'What do you mean? I've been gone like 10 minutes.'"

Elliott credited casinos for enabling such behaviour, pointing out the lack of clocks or windows in their common areas.

Fatigue is only one point on a list of behaviours exhibited by individuals with gambling problems. Other signs to watch for include a preoccupation with gambling, irritability, suspiciously secretive behaviour and perhaps even a complete change in personality.

"If you've got a friend who typically likes to get together and hang out, yet they're withdrawing from those social activities, or they're always driving the social activities to be, 'Oh, you know what? Let's go to the casino, let's go to the casino,'" she explained. "It doesn't have to get to that point for everybody; you can see some of that changing. So take them somewhere neutral but private and just say, 'I'm concerned. I'm worried about you — here are some of the things that I'm seeing. Is this a concern for you?'"

If you're concerned that someone you know might have a problem with gambling, speak to them about it from a place of sincerity and honesty. Admit to them your concerns, and give them an opportunity to address them with you.

Many people don't understand that gambling can be as serious an addiction as any form of substance abuse, if not more so. It's important not to be judgmental, but simply to remember that you care about that person enough to ask — youth have a far better ability to see these sorts of changes in their friends than adults do.

To speak to a counsellor here at Fanshawe, visit the Counselling and Accessibility Services centre in F2010 and ask about information on problem gambling. Additionally, counselling is available through Addiction Services of Thames Valley, located at 200 Queens Ave., or visit their website at
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