Problem gambling

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What is problem gambling?

Many individuals enjoy gambling, whether it is at the pokies, the races, or purchasing a lottery ticket. However, for some people, gambling can stop being a source of occasional entertainment and become a serious problem. The term ‘problem gambling’ is most commonly used to describe an individual’s inability to control the amount of money and/or time spent gambling which results in negative consequences for their social, family, and work life.1

Signs and symptoms

Although there are no obvious symptoms of problem gambling, there are a number of cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and financial signs that might indicate that an individual is experiencing a gambling problem. These signs include:2

Cognitive and emotional

  • frequent thoughts about gambling
  • feeling irritable and restless when attempting to stop gambling
  • gambling in order to escape problems/feel better
  • gambling more and more money in order to achieve feelings of excitement


  • arguments with family or friends as a result of issues relating to gambling
  • experiencing difficulties at work or with study as a result of gambling behaviour
  • repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling
  • difficulties resisting the urge to gamble


  • relying on others to resolve financial troubles caused by gambling
  • gambling in order to win back lost money

What causes problem gambling?

There is no one cause for problem gambling. Rather, there are a range of factors that might place an individual at a higher risk of developing gambling problems, including:

  • Age: People aged 18-35 years are the most at-risk age group for developing gambling issues3
  • Gender: Men are more likely to experience problems with gambling than women4, 5
  • Place of living: Living or working in areas with a large concentration of gambling venues (e.g., hotels/clubs) increases an individual’s risk of developing problem gambling6, 7
  • Individual differences: People who score higher on measures of impulsivity, some personality disorders, and who have substance abuse difficulties are more at risk of developing problems with gambling8
  • Stressful life events: In some individuals, negative life events such as the loss of a job, family problems, or a relationship breakdown might trigger gambling behaviour8
  • Cultural factors: Some cultural groups have an increased risk of developing gambling problems compared to the general community9, 10

Evidence-based psychological approaches and strategies

Research has shown that a number of psychological strategies are helpful in the treatment and management of problem gambling, with the most effective being cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and motivational enhancement therapy (MET).1 These strategies are described below.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps an individual to modify unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.11 In relation to problem gambling, CBT uses a range of cognitive and behavioural strategies to help identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts (e.g., superstitious beliefs) and the gambling behaviour which follows.

Motivational interviewing   

MI is a counselling approach which helps strengthen an individual’s motivation to change their gambling behaviour by exploring reasons for change and resolving any uncertainty that they might be experiencing about the change. During MI, the psychologist uses a range of strategies to help bring about reductions in gambling, such as goal setting, developing a plan of action, and increasing the individuals confidence in their ability to change their gambling habits.12

Motivational enhancement therapy

MET is a brief psychological intervention based on the principles of MI. A core feature of MET is the delivery of personalised feedback following an initial assessment to bring about self-motivated behaviour change. MET typically comprises four sessions, with the first two sessions focusing on assessment, feedback, and the development of behaviour change plans, and the two follow-up sessions assessing the individual’s progress and reinforcing goals.13

How a psychologist can help

Through discussion with the client and the possible use of questionnaires and monitoring tools, the psychologist develops an understanding of the potential factors involved in the onset and maintenance of problem gambling. A treatment plan is then developed by the psychologist together with the individual.

The psychologist might also assist their client to address any lifestyle factors which might increase their capacity to better manage their difficulties, and reduce the consequences of problem gambling. They might also suggest involving a supportive family member or friend to assist in the understanding of the individual's situation and to support treatment.

Other professionals who might be involved

A medical review with a GP or another mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist might be suggested if a medical or psychiatric condition is suspected by the psychologist. Referrals to a financial advisor, social worker, or legal services might also be made to help the individual manage their budget, debt, housing arrangements, and legal problems.

When to seek professional help

If gambling is affecting a person’s work, school, home life, or relationships, psychological assistance should be considered. The APS Find a Psychologist service can be used to locate a psychologist in your local area: call 1800 333 497 or visit A GP can also organise a referral to an APS psychologist under the Better Access to Mental Health Care items.

More information

Australian Psychological Society
Australia’s largest professional association for psychologists

Gambling Help Online
Provides counselling, information and support for individuals with gambling concerns
Ph:  1800 858 858

Australian Government Problem Gambling website
Australian Government website providing information about problem gambling, including where you can get help in every state or territory

  • Contributor(s)
    APS Member Resources Team

    Associate Professor Paul Delfabbro
    School of Psychology
    The University of Adelaide
  • Publish date
    22 Aug 2013
  • References


1.    Problem Gambling Research and Treatment Centre (PGRTC). (2011). Guideline for Screening, Assessment and Treatment in Problem Gambling. Clayton: Monash University.
2.    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington DC: Author.
3.    Delfabbro, P., & King, D. (2012). Gambling in Australia: Experiences, problems, research and policy. Addiction, 107(9), 1556-1561. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03802.x
4.    Dickson, L. M., Derevensky, J. L., & Gupta, R. (2002). The prevention of gambling problems in youth: A conceptual framework. Journal of Gambling Studies, 18(2), 97-159.
5.    Jackson, A. C., Dowling, N., Thomas, S. A., Bond, L., & Patton, G. (2008). Adolescent gambling behaviour and attitudes: A prevalence study and correlates in an Australian population. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 6(3), 325-352.
6.    Hing, N., & Gainsbury, S. (2011). Risky business: Gambling problems amongst gaming venue employees in Queensland, Australia. Journal of Gambling Issues, 4-23. doi: 10.4309/jgi.2011.25.2
7.    Storer, J., Abbott, M., & Stubbs, J. (2009). Access or adaptation? A meta-analysis of surveys of problem gambling prevalence in Australia and New Zealand with respect to concentration of electronic gaming machines. International Gambling Studies, 9(3), 225-244. doi: 10.1080/14459790903257981
8.    Blaszczynski, A., & Nower, L. (2002). A pathways model of problem and pathological gambling. Addiction, 97, 487-499.
9.    Blaszczynski, A., Huynh, S., Dumlao, V., & Farrell, E. (1998). Problem gambling within a Chinese speaking community. Journal of Gambling Studies, 14(4), 359-380.
10.    Thomas, S. A., & Yamine, R. (2000). The Impact of Gaming on Specific Cultural Groups. Melbourne: Victorian Casino Gaming Authority.
11.    Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
12.    Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford Publications.
13.    Donovan, D. M., Kadden, R. M., DiClemente, C. C., & Carroll, K. M. (2002). Client satisfaction with three therapies in the treatment of alcohol dependence: Results from Project MATCH. The American Journal on Addictions, 11(4), 291-307. doi: 10.1080/10550490290088090

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