Winner does not take all, say psychiatrists on gambling addiction

Gambling addicts might also have depression, which makes quitting harder.

IT’S a high that you can afford to lose.

Winning from gambling produces a “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain, called dopamine and causes a person to feel pleasure.

“Once the brain is denied this feeling, it looks for it and therefore the whole addiction process starts, ” says Universiti Malaya Centre of Addiction Sciences chief coordinator Assoc Prof Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin.

He says people often start gambling as a form of entertainment or to try their luck to make some money.

“As most gambling is now happening online, in many forms, the risk of falling into problem gambling increases.

“All you need is a smartphone and Internet access. You can start with a very low base.

“Advertisements also pop out frequently online especially if you visit certain sites so the risk is ever present, ” points out Dr Amer Siddiq, who is also a consultant psychiatrist.

On youths being susceptible to online gambling, he says the risk for addiction is the same for all age groups.

“However, the risk is ever present for youths, with their increase in screen time and also the nature of marketing to a very Internet savvy generation.

“The low entrance for some of these gambling sites can also make it a challenge for some, ” he adds.

People who are already addicted need to seek an assessment and also treatment, he urges.

For family members and friends of the gambler, Dr Amer Siddiq advises them to first have an open communication with the affected individual.

“Often, it is the shame and stigma that prevents them from coming forward.

“For parents, it’s important that we know what our children are doing online and possibly discuss the dangers to them, ” he says, adding that parents should know what games they are playing too.

For those facing gambling addiction, it can be difficult to manage this issue alone.

“Come forward for an assessment. Often these individuals might also have depression which makes quitting harder too, ” Dr Amer Siddiq highlights.

Malaysian Mental Health Association president and consultant psychiatrist Professor Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj says the Covid-19 pandemic has affected mental health in the general population worldwide including Malaysia.

“Social isolation for extended periods and boredom may also make people turn to online gambling.

“For some, the challenge of making ends meet may also cause them to resort to gambling out of desperation, ” he says.

However, turning to gambling either to kill boredom or to make money is high risk and more often than not, causes more losses resulting in extra stress, compromising mental wellbeing.

“Changes in the brain due to the uncertainty in gambling can even enhance gamblers’ cravings. Repeated exposure to uncertainty triggers the release of dopamine almost like winning does. That is why among compulsive gamblers, losing money ironically sets off an urge to continue gambling, ” Dr Andrew explains.

In overcoming addiction, he says the most important step is the commitment to give up the habit by the concerned person himself.

“The journey of recovery is often long and arduous. It can extend from several months to several years, ” he says.

Dr Andrew’s advice to them is to ponder over the emotional and often financial toll on themselves as well as their families.

“For families and friends of the individual, my advice to them is to support the person in his struggle, but no need to take on his burden.

“Allow him to take responsibility for his behaviour so he may learn, ” he says.

Coping with a loved one’s problem gambling can be very distressing.

“Family members too may need to seek professional psychological help if they are struggling to cope with the situation, ” Dr Andrew adds.

He says while families must extend support to the member with the problem, it should not be to an extent that they bring financial ruin to themselves or put themselves in any physical danger.

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