When the money stops

Thousands of dollars of debt, domestic problems, bank robbery, murder and suicide.

These are only a few possible consequences of gambling addiction.

Dr. Timothy Fong, associate professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, said that he has had patients who drained all their life savings in a matter of months, were left by their spouse, neglected and even abused their children, committed credit card scams, tried to rob banks and eventually attempted to kill themselves.

"[This] all [happened] because of gambling addictions; you hear the heartbreak, the turmoil, the chaos and just the devastation," Fong said in an interview for the feature documentary "Post Oak Bluff," a film about the government's attempt to ban online poker in the United States.

For most people gambling is only recreational. For some, however, it can develop into a debilitating problem, according to the Office of Problem Gambling of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

As stated on the CDADP's website, gambling becomes a problem when it affects the gambler, the gambler's family and place of employment, resulting in behaviors that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family, educational, financial or vocational interest.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, pathologicalgambling, also called compulsive gambling, is considered a mental disorder.

In addition to attempted suicide, psychological difficulties of pathological gambling include anxiety, depression, guilt, alcohol and drug abuse — all of which can cause stress-related physical illnesses such as hypertension and heart disease, according to the CDAPD.

As stated on the website of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, pathological gamblers are unable to stop despite adverse consequences. They see gambling as a way of escaping from problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression.

"Gambling addiction is about escaping life and seeking relief from life's problem through gambling," said Fong in an email.

About one to five percent of the adult population are problem gamblers over their lifetime, according to the California State Library. This includes people who are currently experiencing problems as well as those who may have experienced problems in the past.

Fong said so-called risk factors increase the probability of an addiction but are not a guarantee.

Those factors include family members with gambling problems, co-occurrence with psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, personality traits of being impulsive, competitive, or difficulties dealing with loss, Fong said in the documentary.

Underage gamblers are more likely to develop a gambling addiction, Fong said.

"Students gamble to have fun, make money and to try something new and exciting," he said. "People under age of 21 are more likely to develop gambling addiction than adults because it doesn't take as many losses for a person to develop life problems. Also, because they are younger, problems occur sooner."

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 10 to 15 percent of young people surveyed have significant gambling problems, with six percent of the teens who have tried gambling having become pathological gamblers.

Gladys Ferrero, a 22-year-old SMC student, has experienced the thrill of gambling and understands the motivation of some students to start gambling.

"I think students see [gambling] as an easy way to make money," she said. "Sometimes when they win a little, they get the rush and the excitement not to have to work for that money. And being in school, it is very difficult to come around money because you're always studying and don't have time for a job. Easy money is always indulgent."

The same part of the brain that controls pleasure and reward responds to gambling, which causes the brain to release neurochemicals like dopamine that activates adrenaline and excitement, Fong said in an interview with Post Oak Bluff.

As stated by the USDA, compulsive gambling shows parallels to drug and alcohol abuse. Not only are the brain reactions to both addictions similar, but the development of "tolerance" in both cases are also alike.

The more alcohol or drugs that are consumed, the higher the tolerance level that is developed. Similarly, compulsive gamblers develop "tolerance" for the "action" and must increase the size of their bets or the odds against them to create the same amount of excitement.

According to the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, some gambling addicts are "seeking action, an aroused, euphoric state comparable to the high derived from cocaine or other drugs."

The program also states that some gamblers experience a “rush,” characterized by sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, nausea or queasiness, while gambling or thinking of gambling.

"Psychologically, gamblers are chasing the next big win and are looking to keep gambling," Fong said. "The worse part of losing isn't dealing with the money losses, it's not being able to gamble."

However, unlike addictions that involve chemicals, gambling addiction does not leave any physiological signs, according a research project by Problem Gambling Prevention.

Fong also recognizes the difficulties in virtually detecting gambling addiction.

"When patients come into the office, they look just like you and me," he said. "They are well-dressed, their hygiene is good, and they speak clearly. They are not coming in with needle track, or as if they are going to die in front of you, [as] patients with other severe addictive disorders or medical problems.

"When we see patients die, kill themselves or unintentionally kill other people, the cause of death isn’t called gambling overdose or pathological gambling," Fong said. "It’s listed as gunshot wound, or motor vehicle accident, or destitution. So [gambling] is truly a hidden addiction."