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When Does Gambling Become A Problem?

3 Factors: Abnormal Mentality, Distress, and Chronic Gambling Activities

According to a survey from the University of Hong Kong, there were around 200,000 problem gamblers in the local community. Furthermore, another survey a few years ago found that 19.4% of people who committed suicide had gambling behaviour.  Needless to say, pathological gambling brings about numerous personal and family issues and societal problems. 

The current article is not aiming to examine the seriousness of this phenomenon from an academic perspective. Instead, our objective is to take a lighter approach and examine closely individuals with gambling as their only interest (but not at a pathological state).

The American Psychological Association (APA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) both have strict definitions for ‘Pathological Gambler’. In Hong Kong, it is not uncommon to hear about gamblers incurring huge debts, resulting in their families having to sell their assets to repay them. When a gambling habit results in such a severe consequence, causing the family to fall apart or becoming a life or death issue, pathological gamblers should seek professional help immediately. Free gambling addiction counselling can be sought at organisations such as the Sunshine Lutheran Centre and Kei Yam Family Service Centre. Both organisations have helped many problem gamblers.

If we are described as being “addicted to gambling” by people around us, and yet the following do not apply to us: (1) we feel that have a serious gambling problem, (2) our gambling habits meet the criteria defined by APA and WHO, (3) we lost all our financial assets to gambling, (4) we are constantly thinking about gambling; do we truly have a problem?

Problem Gambler: Distress and Long-term Gambling

The Companions Professional Counselling Centre focuses on two key aspects to guide clients in reflecting on their gambling situation. First, we examine issues that arise from gambling for signs of abnormal mentality and distress. Second, we focus on the quality of life, identifying if gambling prevents clients from improving their quality of life or what can be done, in general, to improve their current life.

When we examine from an abnormal mentality perspective, we first focus on frequency. We find out if the client’s frequency of gambling is higher than the average norm. For example, playing mahjong five to six times a week, despite involving only very small bets, is still considered more frequent than the local average. Secondly, we assess if the client’s actions are morally unacceptable, such as choosing to gamble instead of taking care of a sick family member. Thirdly, we study if the duration or frequency of gambling has affected the client’s daily functioning. For instance, when spending too much time on gambling at night, he or she may feel tired and unable to concentrate at work on the next day. If all the above three factors are met, the gambling behaviour already falls into the area of abnormal psychology.

Gambling as a form of avoidance to unhappiness

From the perspective of quality of life, we need to consider a broader range of areas. We only have 24 hours a day. If we spend the majority of our time on gambling, to the point where gambling is no longer a leisure activity but an avenue for us to avoid unpleasant or unhappy issues, this indicates that we need professional help. At this stage, one may need an experienced counsellor to work on life goal planning and seek coaching service to work on improving family and interpersonal relationships.

Consider this scenario: instead of gambling, one can play board game with family after dinner, such as monopoly or ludo.   The winner of the game could decide where the whole family should go on Sunday and have fun. 

Although this involves winning, losing, and betting, clearly this is a wholesome activity, unlike typical gambling.

I will end this article with a case study:  a wealthy 30-year old man is well supported financially by his family. He is given a large apartment to stay in and a commercial property in Mongkok to generate rental income. Each month, he receives a rental income of $200,000. This gentleman gambles every day by playing mahjong and betting on horse-racing and football matches. However, he exercise a self-control and cease gambling if his losses exceed $100,000 each month, so as to ensure there is money left for his living expenses. Do we consider this gentleman a problem gambler? Should he consider finding a counsellor or a coach to reassess his current lifestyle and redesign a life that he truly yearns for?

Symptoms of Pathological Gambling:

Have more than three of the following symptoms within a year:

  1. Need to continuously increase the size of bets to elevate the excitement
  2. Feeling restless when gambling less frequently or when not gambling
  3. Repeatedly failures of the attempts in controlling gambling, gambling less frequently or quit gambling
  4. Rumination of thoughts of gambling
  5. Have strong urges to win back losses after losing money
  6. Tell lies because of gambling

(Extracted from the APA’s DSM-5. Note that the original text comprised of nine factors and other traits)

The Companions
KK Cheng