The question: I think a friend has a gambling problem. It’s not like he’s playing video terminals every night, but he seems to treat a trip to the casino more as a way to supplement his income than as a fun time out. Am I overreacting or does he need help?
The answer: Problem gambling is infrequent (generally affecting less than 1 per cent of the population), but can have tremendous ramifications on one’s financial, emotional and family lives when it does exist. It’s an urge that individuals have to engage in repeat gambling behaviours despite continuing negative consequences. The main measure of whether someone has a gambling problem is not the frequency of the behaviour, but rather the negative effects on his or her overall quality of life. Individuals with significant issues may in fact gamble infrequently (conversely, someone could feasibly gamble relatively frequently with little to no negative impact).
Although it is not a very prudent way to supplement income, it could be that he is gambling for extra cash with little to no negative effects on any other parts of his life.
Think about whether your friend is having financial issues. Is he unable to meet his financial obligations or pay his bills? Is he overextending himself on credit cards or lines of credit? Is he borrowing money from friends to maintain his gambling habit?
From an emotional perspective, is your friend demonstrating low, depressed mood, or continuing anxiety or chronic stress? Are his personal relationships suffering? Is he opting to gamble at the expense of maintaining relationships? If he has a partner, is the partner concerned about his behaviour?
The answers to these questions can help you determine whether you should approach your friend. If you answer yes to any of them, you may want to consider having a conversation with him. The manner in which you approach your friend is going to depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the relationship the two of you have, as well as how open you think your friend may be to what he may initially perceive as criticism or judgment.
Start by educating yourself on problem gambling. The Responsible Gambling Council has a number of useful resources for individuals and loved ones of someone who may be struggling with a gambling problem.
Then pick an appropriate time to talk. It would be ideal if you could have the conversation at a time when your friend expresses some regret or refers to a negative impact of his gambling. Remain non-judgmental and supportive in your tone and language. Be mindful not to attack him personally. Express that you care about your friend and that you are worried about him. Then specifically and objectively identify some of the behaviours or negative ramifications you have seen. If possible, use his own words (“Last week you said you were really worried about making this month’s rent because of how much you had lost the previous weekend.”).
Listen to what your friend has to say. Despite your urge to want to help, do not attempt to “solve” his problems for him. Giving advice will likely make him defensive. Instead, ask him what he thinks would be helpful, and offer to support him by getting more information or seeking external assistance. Throughout this process, make sure to take care of yourself. Remind yourself that your friend has to be at a place to admit he needs help and be willing to take steps to change, and that your role as a friend is to remain non-judgmental and supportive.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.