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Gambling, trading and investing… are they the same thing?

How technology has increased the risk of becoming addicted

By Lee Rolleston, Addiction Therapist at Rhodes Recovery, Priory’s Secondary Addiction Care Service supporting the transition from inpatient addiction treatment back into daily life.

Gambling at the track, or trading stocks and shares, can be both exciting and addictive, yet the perception of the person ‘losing’ their week’s wages in the bookmakers on a Saturday is very different from the person who was ‘unlucky’ to buy the wrong stock at the wrong time and lose, for example, their inheritance. One may seem stupid and sleazy, the other unfortunate or ill advised, yet they can both be driven by the same desire for a quick buck, a burst of excitement and the chance to be a winner. Ironically, both experience a financial loss, but more importantly, they are both at risk of damaging their mental health with their addictive behaviour.

This all sounds old-fashioned, reflecting back to a time when people were paid weekly and had to go into a bookmakers to make their bet on a ‘sure thing’… or when they had to phone their stockbroker to buy some penny shares that they had been told would make them their fortune. Almost inevitably the ‘sure thing’ fell at the last fence and the penny share went up initially only to collapse when everyone wanted to take their ‘profit’. Bookmaking was legalised in the 1960s and betting became easier and more accessible.

Underlying this behaviour can also be the desire to not miss out on the next big opportunity. This was evident in the 1980s and 1990s, firstly with privatisation, which saw ‘every man and his dog’ apply for shares and see amazing returns. This led to frustration when people did not get as many shares as they wanted, therefore not fulfilling their ‘greed’. Secondly, with the tech boom, shares in these companies just seemed to keep going up and investors, or punters as I might choose to call them, were desperate to get involved, which led to many casualties when the shares crashed.

Over the years, the markets and the gambling industry have developed many new methods for people to bet on the outcome of sporting events and financial markets. Many afford the gambler the opportunity to leverage on their money via options or ‘spread betting’, leading to profits or, more importantly, losses far in excess of what was expected or could be afforded. People who are prone to addiction might often win first which only falsely leads them to believe that what they are doing is beneficial and they may start risking more each time as their addiction progresses.

Technological advances have just increased these options with accessibility to global sporting events as well as more complicated financial instruments that would normally only be used by professionals. It has not just been individuals who have fallen foul of this; many local authorities lost millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money trading interest rate swaps that they did not understand. The individuals involved and the taxpayers eventually got restitution from the banks. 

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoins and Ethereum, which are just a fraction of more than 50 different cryptocurrencies that are traded on a daily basis or longer term with a high volatility, can appeal to the addict.

It is all too easy to place a bet or a financial trade; it can be done at the click of a button on your phone and with no physical money changing hands. This makes it easier for people to increase the size of their positions when the market goes against them, rather than cutting their losses.

Gambling is not gender specific but it’s known to be more prevalent in men and is also one of the addictive behaviours more likely to lead to suicide. Gamblers can normally hide their addiction from others for longer than substance misusers, as the physical effects are often absent. Yet when the horrors of their addiction are discovered, it is often too late and homes, careers and even lives can be lost. Gamblers will often use substances to fuel their gambling or to bury their shame and guilt. Gamblers may be losing at the casino, with sports betting or in the financial markets; they may also have the misconception that they are professional gamblers, traders or investors. Sadly, it usually ends up with depleted finances and emotional turmoil.

Fortunately as with other addictions, it is treatable. Gambling doesn’t involve a substance and is one of the few process addictions that can be treated by an abstinence-based programme. There is the need for over-eaters to eat food, the love addict to relate with others and the shopping addict to buy necessities, yet the gambler does not have to gamble at all. The addicted gambler is like the alcoholic, they cannot have ‘one small bet’ as it won’t fix their need to change how they feel or create the level of excitement desired. The gambler will only end up betting more and more and will only stop, temporarily, when there is no money left or no access to the platforms to bet or trade.

The gambling addict needs the same treatment as other addicts – abstinence, behavioural therapy, a psychological change and a recovery network. The gambling industry does provide some support, from limiting the amount staked, to self-exclusion. There is also further support at www.gambleaware.org and Gamblers Anonymous.

Priory also offers gambling addiction treatment programmes across the country. We offer 28-day inpatient programmes, which can be supported by Rhodes Recovery where I am based. Here, we offer secondary addiction services that help people to continue to address underlying issues of addiction, live in recovery, and set up their support systems in preparation for life back at home.

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