It may start with a lucky lottery ticket, a winning hand at poker, or the matching reels of a slot machine. The ending is rarely profitable. Problem gambling ensnares four to six million people in the U.S.—many of them men. It’s an addiction that can yield financial and personal ruin.

What is problem gambling?

More than eight out of 10 American adults have gambled at some point in their lives. Many of us enjoy an occasional poker game or lottery ticket without any serious consequences. If you are a problem gambler, though, these situations can spiral out of control. You may feel compelled to bet more money and wager more often. You may not be able to stop gambling no matter the cost.

The American Psychiatric Association recently classified severe problem gambling as an addictive disorder. Ongoing research suggests it’s similar to alcohol or drug abuse. Like those addictions, it affects the brain’s reward system. Problem gamblers may crave the experience, hoping to secure the same “high” again and again. They may also exhibit withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, if they can’t gamble.

Overall, more men than women suffer from problem gambling. Younger men, in particular, are at risk. It’s also more likely to occur in those with a family history of addiction. Many men who are addicted to gambling also have substance abuse problems.

When to seek help

People with a gambling problem often face more than financial troubles. They can lose their job and even their family. You don’t need to gamble every day to have a gambling problem. The amount of money you wager—and ultimately lose—also doesn’t matter.

You or a loved one may have a gambling problem if you notice any of these:

  • You gamble longer than you intended.
  • You gamble all your money away instead of paying your bills.
  • You can’t stop gambling even though you have tried.
  • You constantly think about gambling.
  • You have borrowed money to continue gambling.
  • You feel depressed or remorseful after you lose.
  • You have thought about or have broken the law to obtain money for gambling.
  • You lie to others about your gambling activities.

If you think you or a loved one may have a gambling problem, help is available. Organizations such as Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon offer support groups for gamblers and their families. Other treatment options that may curb the desire to gamble include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, such as some antidepressants.

Looking for help near you? Call the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network at 800.522.4700.