Compulsive Gambling Disorder and the Intervention Process

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Contributed by: Susanne Johnson, Lead Advocate – Heroes in Recovery, CAI, Certified ARISE Interventionist, Certified Sober Coach

There isn’t a Wild West movie without someone getting shot over a card game. And there isn’t a gangster episode without a poker backroom, full of smoke, where people lose all they have and more.

Today’s gambling is different, but still the same. Whether you bet on horses or football, play poker or roulette, either online or in a casino, or if you take every penny you make to the nearest gas station for a lottery ticket, all gambling has something in common.

If it turns into an addiction, financial disaster is near, relationships break and many other consequences haunt your life. The person might not be facing a Smith & Wesson anymore, but life can easily turn into a catastrophe.

The gambler cannot stop, even if his boss tells him this is his last chance. He returns to the casino, even if his wife has filed for divorce and a financial hurricane is taking his life apart.

He still believes that the only way out of this misery is betting this time more than last time, because he believes this time he will win and pay off his problems. Gambling is an addiction, and an addiction is a disease.

Gambling Addiction is a Disease

Gambling addiction is a serious disorder, a form of process addiction, where a person feels the compulsive urge to repeat a certain procedure even if it causes negative consequences. It might reach a point where it is all he thinks about, but someone does not have to gamble every day to be considered a gambling addict or problem gambler.

Conflict between man and woman sitting on either side of a wallLike with any substance use disorder as well, enabling will make the problem worse, so by no means should you help someone with this gambling disorder by paying his debts or giving him money. Help is available at various very specialized treatment centers.

The person will learn other coping skills to handle life than using gambling as a way out of reality. If you are not sure, if what you do is ‘enabling’ ask yourself if you are forwarding the addiction or forwarding the recovery.

If someone you love has this problem, you can start to help him by taking all his money and credit cards. Then the person has to change his complete lifestyle and avoid places that trigger his gambling urges. But most of all, your loved one has to want to put a stop to this behavior and start a different life. He has to admit and see clearly, that he has a serious problem and not a ‘bad luck streak’.


As an interventionist I can stop the process at a certain point from getting worse by teaching the family tools to minimize damage. I can also be clear about the consequences resulting from his behavior.

A problem gambler must understand, that at this point in life there is no one to help him up and out of debt. He has to face all corresponding consequences for his actions himself, even if it’s hard. He must be given the choice to go and seek help or to continue with all radical and harsh consequences as they come towards him.

Any addiction disorder needs a motivator for the person to get engaged in his recovery. Serious motivators are, for example, are pending court sentences or the loss of a license, if the behavior continues. Not everyone facing addiction has one of this big ones in place.

A very important part of an intervention is to find the right motivator for the person or create one together with the family. Without the right motivator almost every attempt for recovery will be a struggle or no success at all.

man in black and whiteYet we can’t measure ‘success’ in a short period of time, the recovery process is long, it can take years to change a lifestyle completely and discover a stable and sustained recovery.

Doing an intervention for a loved one with a gambling disorder is very important, as it might save his life. At times it can all get too overwhelming for the person, and the suicide rate is high.

As a family member of a problem gambler, you need to set strict boundaries, not only financial, but also personal.

Get support and help yourself first. As with any other addiction, gambling affects the entire family and each member needs to recover from this. Interventions help the family and the entire support network to find efficient ways back to their own resilience.

As with any change we would like to see in someone with any substance use disorder or process addiction, please keep in mind, that there is no place for shame, guilt, shouting or anger in conversations about this problem. Love is the biggest motivator for someone to stop, and sometimes that is not even enough, he needs professional help.

It is not the family or any other third party’s fault that someone uses drugs or gambles. NEVER give yourself any blame. If you set boundaries and put consequences in place, you need to hold them, no matter what.

Uncontrollable Urge

The uncontrollable urge to gamble is a serious disease and the loved one does not do it intentionally to harm or hurt the family. It stimulates the brain and changes the chemicals similar to any other addiction and the person loses the possibility to make healthy choices. If the family cannot consider themselves as support network and show compassion, the recovery is very difficult.

Even if your loved one agrees to enter treatment, please don’t expect miracles. There is no magic wand that therapists can wave over his head to stop this behavior.

abused-substances-among-athletesIt is a very long process and often people resist treatment for a long time before they finally give in.

A long period of stabilization and monitoring usually follows treatment to ensure a long-term quality result.

Interventions prepared and executed by family and friends usually have a positive influence on the recovery, and get the process started if they are done right.

But if anything you initiate does not give any change in the gambling behavior of your loved one, it is time to go the next step.

I suggest to get a professional interventionist to start the process together with the family. It makes a big difference in evidence based success rates of recovery, if a professional interventionist was involved in the foundation of the recovery.

A professional intervention will change the communication, from most likely begging and pleading, to a structured conversation about the harm he has done to the people which love him. It will not give him the possibility to manipulate the conversation into his defending position, also picking fights and battles to get any talk away from the ultimate focus subject: the gambling and that it has to stop.

An intervention is always done with the right mixture of love, concern and compassion in a well prepared setting. During a professional intervention we acknowledge the positive attributes someone has and not only highlight the negativity of his gambling. We give specific episodes on where and how he had harmed or hurt the family with this actions, so he can’t deny the existence of problems.

Recommendations and Consequences

The next step is to give well researched recommendations about the solution in the form of the needed level of care, as well as possible places to go. And the last component we need is to set consequences if he fails to do as he promises during the intervention. These consequences have to be carried through by all means.

repair-the-damage-of-the-pastMotivators, staged consequences and family responsibilities are set in a contract and accepted by the entire family.

Now the groundwork is done in order for treatment to give the desired change, while the family prepares for his return in a separate program, to support his recovery and avoid relapse.

An intervention is a very complex chain of preparations, procedures and decisions, not at all just a meeting to surprise and overrun someone to accept treatment.

It is a solid foundation for a high success rate recovery and should be performed by trained, certified and insured professionals. Contact me at [email protected], and I will be happy help you in person, or refer you to a specialist in your area.

Gambling is very serious, if there are hundreds of thousands lost in the stock market, a few thousand in a Casino, or just scratch-off tickets purchased. All can lead to an uncontrolled situation and the earlier we intervene, the easier it is, and the better the results.

Please contact me, if you need help with a loved one. You should never try this alone out of shame, help is available and you are not the only one who needs assistance. There is a lot of hope for people with gambling disorders to recover, if it’s done right and is well organized.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with gambling addiction and intervention? What positive steps were taken and what advice to you have to share?

Susanne JohnsonAbout the author: Susanne Johnson has traveled the world, living on three continents and visited nearly 50 countries. After years of battling addiction, she found recovery at Michael’s House in Palm Springs, CA, in 2010. She continues to attend three or four recovery group meetings per week and enjoys spending time with many friends who are in recovery. The joy that Susanne feels in her new life led her to become involved as a lead advocate with Heroes in Recovery in 2012.

She says that this organization is where her inspiration for helping others to achieve sobriety found its start. Her goal now is to help others to achieve sobriety and remind the public to have acceptance and tolerance for those who seek help for addiction or mental health problems.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 15, 2015
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