In the UK, for every person who has a gambling problem, around seven others are affected too. The most severe impacts are felt by family members.
Being close to someone who has a gambling problem can be very distressing and overwhelming. This is particularly the case when you don’t know how to help the person you love and care about and you see them struggling. You may experience lots of different feelings, including hurt, anger, mistrust, sadness and worry about the future. You may also be affected financially and worried about how to manage.
This page describes some of the signs that a person may have a gambling problem. It also discusses the steps you can take to protect you, your loved one and your family.
Signs of a problem
It can be difficult to know if someone has a problem with gambling. To begin with, we may not want to believe that someone we know or love has a problem with gambling.
It can also be difficult to spot a gambling problem because the person you care about does not recognise they have a problem and may get defensive or angry if questioned about it.
Alternatively, the person may feel they have to cope with their gambling problem on their own. They do not tell family members because of shame, fear and loss of trust if they reveal the full extent of their debts, and guilt and remorse about the impact that their gambling is having on others. Experiencing these emotions can be overwhelming, and the person may not be able to think clearly about what is happening. They may make efforts to try and recoup the money lost by placing further bets.
Signs that something is wrong can include:
- Money disappearing
- Unpaid bills or disconnection notices (even though the person is in work)
- Selling off possessions
- Borrowing money from family or friends
- Taking out multiple loans
- Poor credit ratings
- Being evasive about payslips, bills or invoices
- In some cases, committing theft or fraud.
You may notice other changes about the person you are close to that seem out of character, such as:
- Spending more time gambling
- Seemingly never off their mobile phone or the internet
- Being vague about unexplained absences, or often late for commitments
- Becoming withdrawn from others/family events
- Difficulties at work or studies
- Days off sick or missing days
- Seeming worried, agitated, or upset for no apparent reason
- Saying that they feel hopeless, depressed, frustrated or suicidal
- Changes in sleeping, eating, or sexual relationship patterns
- Controlling behaviour to get what they want.
Steps you can take
Here are some suggestions about what you can do if you suspect your loved one has a problem with gambling.
You can start a conversation with the person about their gambling. This may not be straightforward. Many people find it difficult to talk to someone close to them about gambling issues because they do not know what to say and it is a potentially sensitive conversation that could escalate and become upsetting or confrontational.
Helpful approaches include:
- Listening when the person you care about wants to talk.
- Checking how they are feeling can help them feel safe so that they begin to talk about what is going on.
- You could start by saying something along the lines of “I care about you and I can’t help noticing that… is this something we can talk about together?”
- Take them seriously and accept what they say.
- Validate how they are feeling by saying things like “that must feel very difficult or hard for you”.
- Try to resist the temptation to argue or blame them or yourself for the situation they are in (sometimes easier said than done).
Trying to understand what a person is going through can help you to communicate with them more effectively. If someone feels understood, they are more likely to talk openly and honestly.
Know your limits by thinking about what you are willing to accept and what is unacceptable, and what you can do realistically for the person who gambles.
Discuss and agree on a plan which identifies what each of you is willing to do to help the person stop or limit their gambling. For more ideas, you can look at our self-help page.
Recognise that this is likely to be new territory for you both. At times, the person gambling may revert back to their previous habits. You may find that you experience conflicting emotions and that you want some space for yourself. This is normal.
You may find it helpful to ‘check in’ regularly with each other, such as once a week, with openness about past hurts, and future hopes and fears.
You may consider going together for outside help from someone who specialises in relationship counselling or therapy.
Alternatively, you may decide together that now is the time to seek outside help for the person’s gambling. The good news is that with the right help and support, things can change for the better.
Visit our about us page to find out what we can offer at the East Midlands Gambling Harms Service.
Our services offers free, confidential and specialist treatment and recovery for problem gambling for people aged 18 years and over and registered with a GP in the East Midlands.
Your loved one can refer themselves to the service or ask a GP or other health professional to make the referral for them.
If for any reason you decide that this is not the route you want to take, you can discuss other options for help and support through the NHS website.
Protecting you and your family
You may wish to put in place some safeguards if you are concerned about a loved one’s gambling problem.
In most cases, people who have a gambling problem have difficulty dealing with money. There are measures you can take to protect yourself and those around you, such as to:
- Take control of finances for the immediate future.
- Limit access to cash for the person who gambles.
- Help the person identify outstanding bills and loans, and how to pay them off.
You can get help with managing money through our list of support sites, below.
Giving or lending money to someone who gambles can be a difficult decision you may have to face. Providing or loaning money may reinforce or reward gambling behaviour and contribute to the gambling behaviour continuing.
Keep in mind that, when the person gambling has paid all their debts, this can be a time when they are vulnerable to relapse. For example, some people may convince themselves, at this point, that a small bet is acceptable.
When a parent has a problem with gambling, it can have a huge impact on children. It is important to help children affected by gambling. Although they may not say anything, they can feel isolated, angry, depressed and ashamed about what is happening at home and anxious and scared about losing their parent(s).
With more extreme gambling, children may lose out on new shoes or clothes when they need them, and activities such as school trips, summer camps, extra-curricular lessons and days out. They may have difficulties with homework/studies, have to take on caring responsibilities, witness family arguments/breakdowns and in some cases, domestic violence, and they may experience homelessness.
You can support your children in different ways:
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings when it is clear they are ready to do so.
- Reassure them they are not responsible for their parents’ actions.
- Try to keep them engaged in family activities.
- Help them understand that the family may have to use money carefully, but that they will be okay.
- Avoid negative talk about the parent who is gambling – separate the person from the behaviour and acknowledge that it is the gambling that is the problem, not the person.
- You may also want to think about getting outside help from children and young people’s services in your local area.
You may also want to think about getting outside help from children and young people’s services in your local area.
If you are concerned for your own or your children’s safety in any way, you can get help. Find out more on the domestic abuse page on the gov.uk website and the reporting child abuse page on the NSPCC website.
Having regular routines and taking care of yourself is important. You can’t help anyone if you are feeling tired and run down.
Try to keep your friendships going, continue with your interests, including work and do things you find enjoyable.
Get support and talk to someone you trust, such as a close family member, your local doctor, friend or a counsellor/therapist who you know will not judge you or the person that gambles. Talking about what you are going through can be really helpful in coping with stress. Talking to other people can also provide useful advice and a different perspective on the situation you are facing.
Debt management support:
- Stepchange Debt Charity – expert debt advice and fee-free debt management to help you tackle your debts. Tel: 0800 138 1111
- Citizens Advice – get help to work out how much money you owe and which debts you should pay back first. Tel: 0800 144 8848
- Money Helper website – free guidance and debt advice you can trust, including advice on how to speak to the people you owe money to
- National Debt Line – free and independent debt advice over the phone and online via web chat. Tel: 0800 808 4000.
- Mind – a national charity offering advice, support and information to help you understand and manage your mental health. Tel: 0300 123 3393
- Every Mind Matters website – expert NHS advice and practical tips to help you look after your mental health and wellbeing.
See the Help, I’m in crisis page for other organisations offering mental health support.
Some of the information and advice in this section is based on information and advice developed by West Midlands Gambling Harms Clinic.