Doctors treat gambling addiction as brain disease

UCLA’s doctors are in charge of designing, developing and evaluating the state’s treatment program for gambling addiction.

Timothy Fong, UCLA

Timothy Fong, UCLA

Convinced that he was on the brink of madness, Curt seemed to be obsessed with one thought that dominated all others for four long years: He needed money, an inexhaustible pile of money, so that he could continue playing the slots.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he recalled. “Every thought in my head was, ‘How can I get more money to keep everything going?’ These thoughts just ran rampant. It was killing me.”

Curt (not his real name) wasn’t just losing the paycheck from his job as a facilities planner for a chain of stores —his gambling habit would eventually strip him and his family of $170,000. But he was also losing time. Despite his best intentions, he said, he felt powerless to act against an unexplained compulsion to sit down at the first slot machine he saw and play 12 hours straight. “The sheer lack of sleep alone was ruining my life. I was living a lie. And then one day, I had to come clean to my wife. I had to sit down with her one afternoon and rip her heart out.”

When there was nothing left in the bank and his seven credit cards were maxed out, Curt finally sought help from Gamblers Anonymous and the UCLA Gambling Studies Program rather than become a thief. “In order to continue, I knew I would have had to rob a bank. I didn’t want to go down that road. But others have.”

The losses from gambling addiction — defined by mental health professionals as a brain disease at its most elemental form — have become so troubling that the state recently dedicated a total of $15 million for three years to fund treatment programs for any California resident who has the addiction or has been hurt by it, including family members of compulsive gamblers.

“They are oftentimes suffering very much. They get depressed and start using drugs themselves,” said psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, which is working with the state Office of Problem Gambling to design, develop and evaluate the statewide treatment program. Ironically, Fong said, family members often unknowingly play the role of enablers by continually supplying compulsive gamblers with money while at the same time urging them to stop. “They yell and scream, which makes the person want to gamble even more.” The average debt that gambling addicts accumulate is between $40,000 and $70,000.

Gambling addicts make up 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, but that rate is closer to 4 percent in California, almost one in every 25 Californians — a not-so-surprising fact considering that the state is home to approximately 89 card clubs, roughly 100 tribal casinos, the state lottery and racetracks. And, of course, it’s close to gambling meccas like Las Vegas and Reno. The widespread popularity of Internet gambling further exacerbates the problem.

“It’s an enormous issue, but an invisible one,” Fong said. While legal gambling has grown into an $8 billion to $9 billion business in the state, no state funds were available to treat addicts until July, 2009. With this first infusion of state money, the picture is looking more optimistic.

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One Response to “Doctors treat gambling addiction as brain disease”

  1. The person sitting next to you in church, the man in line at the grocery store, or one of your co-workers; any one of these could be involved with a gambling problem. Imagine your grandmother committing a crime to support her gambling addiction. I am a recovering alcoholic, gambler, and have recovered from other addictive behaviors. I published a book, Gripped by Gambling, where the readers can follow the destructive path of the compulsive gambler, a prison sentence, and then on to the recovery road.

    I recently published a second book, Switching Addictions, describing additional issues that confront the recovering addict. These are two books you might consider adding to your library. I also publish a free online newsletter, Women Helping Women, which has been on-line for more than ten years and is read by hundreds of women (and men) from around the world. (


    Marilyn Lancelot