Defining problem gambling

How to tell if someone has a problem

Table of Contents

What is gambling?

Although most people have gambled at some point during their lifetime, many are unclear about the definition of gambling. Gambling is risking something valuable on an event that is determined at least in part by chance. The gambler hopes that he or she will ‘win,’ and gain something of value. Once placed, a bet cannot be taken back.

When most people think of gambling, they think of slot machines and casinos. But, it’s important to understand that playing bingo, buying lottery or scratch tickets, even betting on office pools — all of these, and many other activities, are forms of gambling.

What is Gambling Disorder?

Gambling Disorder is the diagnostic label that the American Psychiatric Association uses to describe clinical levels of excessive gambling in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Most people who struggle with gambling do not have Gambling Disorder, but nonetheless still can experience meaningful harm. Excessive gambling also has been described as gambling-related problems, problem gambling, intemperate gambling, compulsive gambling, and more. These guidelines refer to both Gambling Disorder, and more generally, gambling-related problems.

We can sum up the hallmarks of Gambling Disorder using three C’s

  • People with Gambling Disorder often feel a loss of Control over their gambling. They might try to quit unsuccessfully or hide their gambling behavior.
  • People with Gambling Disorder often Continue gambling despite bad consequences. For example, they might not fulfill work or home obligations, or have legal problems. They also might have repeated social problems, like getting into fights and conflicts with other people.
  • People with Gambling Disorder frequently are preoccupied with gambling. They might Crave gambling or feel a compulsion to gamble.

Who Can Develop a Gambling Disorder?

Anyone can develop gambling-related problems. National estimates of gambling-related problems suggest that on average, out of every 100 people you meet, as many as three could have problems with their gambling behavior. Of this group, one person might have Gambling Disorder.

[Sources: Petry, Stinson, & Grant, 2005; Kessler et al., 2008]

Studies show that gambling behavior also is a marker of risk. People who report that they play many different types of games (e.g., slot machines, lotteries, horse racing) are at greater risk for gambling-related problems than people who report that they play few types of games. [LaPlante et al., 2011]

The National Comorbidity Survey – Replication determined that more than 95% of those who report a lifetime history of Gambling Disorder also report a lifetime history of another mental health disorder. About 22% of these people report a single additional disorder, 10% report 2 additional disorders, and 64% report 3 or more additional lifetime disorders. [Source: Kessler et al., 2008]

Contact   for Defining problem gambling


OPGS provides a range of programs and services across the continuum of care. If you or a loved one need immediate assistance regarding problem gambling, please call the Massachusetts Problem Gambling Helpline or visit

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