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April 13, 2023 | By: Mike Bergeron

Gambling Debt: Warning Signs and What to Do About It

Gambling Debt

You’re back from your weekend getaway to Niagara Falls. 

Maybe you played a few rounds of blackjack and lost a few hundred bucks. But at the end of the day, you know gambling and lottery odds aren’t in your favour. If it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon thing, you’re probably in the clear from serious gambling debt or addiction. 

But how do you know when you have a problem? And once you’re buried in gambling debt, what can you do about it?

Bruce Sellery, CEO of Credit Canada, wanted to find out on his latest Moolala podcast episode. He talked to certified credit counsellor Mike Bergeron to explore gambling debt in Canada and how to address it. 

We’ll walk you through the interview's highlights, insights from an anonymous gambling addict, and how to address gambling debt even if it feels like it’s too late. 


Gambling addiction in Canada and beyond

So, how many Canadians actually have gambling issues? 

According to Stats Canada, only 2% of Canadians are at significant risk of gambling problems. Still, 64% of teens and adults have gambled at least once in the past year. 

Our credit counsellor Mike Bergeron laments the sheer availability of gambling and its effects on the younger generation: 

Today with all the advertisements, I don’t remember the last time I watched a sporting event where during the commercial breaks, they weren’t promoting these online betting sites. You can bet right at home, on your local device — which could automatically cause some severe financial burdens if you don’t set some parameters. It’s a lot more aggressive, versus having to go to a casino to place a bet. It’s a lot easier now — a lot more people, younger people, are getting into this addiction sooner than most.

With more normalization comes more frequency. Of course, there’s a difference between gambling as a treat and problem gambling. 

What we’re worried about is the in-between. Because it’s easy for things to escalate quickly, especially with the increased opportunity with iGaming

Bergeron describes how most of his gambling clients only reach out after there’s a significant consequence: 

They’re late on rent, arrears on their bills, very stressed, nowhere to turn…Sometimes the debt is unknown to loved ones and family, and they have nowhere to turn to.

We also chatted with an anonymous gambling addict and credit counselling client to understand the addiction more: 

I learned there are three serious vices in the world: drugs, alcohol, and gambling,” mused our anonymous Credit Canada client. “I never ever touched drugs or had issues with alcohol. But I was unlucky to turn to gambling and lost my family home in the process.

Strangely, there’s almost a conception that alcohol and drugs are more addictive than gambling. But that misconception is easily explained by the difference between chemical and behavioural addictions. 

See, drugs and alcohol are chemical addictions. The chemicals within the substances trigger your dopamine. But behavioural addictions work a bit differently, albeit just as devastatingly.

Robert Weiss is a therapist who specializes in behavioural addictions:

We naturally, biologically, experience pleasure when doing things that improve our own health, the health of our children, and the health of our communities,” says Weiss.

So if you understand that naturally occurring pleasures are there, in essence, to help us improve survival and the survival rates of our children — now, take a look at the addictions that could come out of naturally occurring behaviours.

He goes on to name sex, video game, and gambling addictions as behavioural addictions. But how does survival fit in with gambling? Weiss says that the fantasy drives the addiction. In this case, maybe it’s the fantasy of providing a wonderful life for you and your family. 

Think of it this way: gambling isn’t the point of the addiction. It’s the entire process — excitingly scheduling time to gamble, picking a game or casino, and fantasizing about the win that will finally pay all your debts. 

Pretty powerful, right? The same dopamine centres are massaged just like with a drug, only the fantasy feels even more natural. 

So how do you catch the addiction before the gambling debt piles on?

Warning signs of gambling addiction

Unfortunately, many don’t notice the warning signs of their gambling addiction until it’s too late. 

Dr. Timothy Fong, a clinical psychiatry professor, reminds SciLine that doctors don’t have biological tests, brain scans, or blood tests to test for gambling addiction. 

We tend to see the consequences first,” says Dr. Fong. 

So how do you notice the problem before the consequences? Bergeron elaborates: 

The majority of the time it’s when they don’t know when to stop…Sometimes you can tell by the isolation, depression, the remorse they feel about what they got themselves into. Sometimes it’s just the fact of lying about how much they’ve lost.

CAMH mentions a few tell-tale signs of gambling addiction: 
  • Interruptions to work or school
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Overwhelming debt
  • Strained relationships
  • Damaged reputation

We also like how simply Dr. Fong assesses a patient for gambling disorders

I have a very simple screening question. Does your gambling behaviour make your life better, or does it create problems?

Let’s say it creates problems. Now what? 

What to do about it: 3 steps to take when gambling debt rules your life


1. Acknowledge the debt and the addiction

Don’t get us wrong — addressing the debt is a fantastic start. But you won’t find longstanding solutions until you address both the debt and the addiction. 

I’ve spoken to many people that sought support regarding the debt, but they never really dealt with the addiction,” Bergeron tells us.

The CMHA is a great start in dealing with your addiction. The organization has tons of social workers, therapists, and psychologists with specialized experience in gambling addictions. 

Canada also offers plenty of governmental and social services to support people who struggle with gambling. Whether it’s support groups or one-on-one therapy, you have options to understand and acknowledge your addiction. 

Here are some resources you might explore to address gambling debts: 

2. Limit the temptation to spend

You can find ways to lower the risk of temptation when it arises. 

One way is to limit your available credit , so you can’t borrow as much money. You might call your credit card company to lower your limit. Or, you could simply leave your credit card at home, and only use it for subscription services. 

Luckily, you have some tools to limit your gambling activities as well. Some gambling sites created self-set parameters to block you from spending X amount of money or X amount of time on the site. For example, OLG introduced “My Play Break,” a revamp of the self-exclusion program that helps problem gamblers stop for a set period of time. Moreover, the Canadian Mental Health Association and provincial bodies offer stepping stones for “self-exclusion.”

Maybe you just need a break…some time to reflect to get your situation back on track,” says Bergeron. “You can put yourself on a six-month probation where you can’t attend the casino. Or they’ll also support you on the steps of stopping yourself from being able to go on any online platforms, poker sites, gaming sites, or betting sites.

3. Explore Debt Relief Options with Credit Canada

Sometimes, gambling debt piles too high for you to deal with it alone. That’s why we’re here as the longest-standing non-profit credit counselling agency in Canada. We help you walk through options and pick the best ones for your scenario. 

Gambling debt is a silent burden for many. Stop the pattern by getting support — call a credit counsellor to review your options today!

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