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Perceptions around Addiction

What do you think of when you think of addiction? Many would immediately think of substances such as drugs or alcohol and their addictive properties. We would tend to think of the outward appearance of a person with an addiction, possible struggles with mental health, homelessness, or the negative implications on a person’s life that come from this struggle. While these are all valid ways to answer this question, we often think of addiction only in some of its most obvious forms, often ignoring lesser-known addictions or the subtle behavioural signs that may indicate a problem. What many do not realize is that addictions are not simply limited to substances, but behaviours and activities, with many being heavily encouraged in our society as very popular forms of entertainment.

Many are knowledgeable of the signs and symptoms of an addiction to drugs or alcohol yet may be unaware of the more nuanced signs that indicate a behavioural addiction, such as gambling. The way we discuss addiction in our society may also influence the way we interpret what an addiction should look like and may leave many undiagnosed or unable to get the help they need if they don’t fit the narrow criteria. This blog post will cover the misconceptions around behavioural addiction, why our society often overlooks potentially addictive activities such as gambling, and the stigma that comes with disclosing a behavioural addiction.

Active promotion of addictive activities

The primary issues surrounding our perception of addiction is how overlooked many addictions are and how addictive behaviours are actively promoted in our society. Take a moment to think about how many advertisements we see every day for addictive substances such as cannabis, tobacco, or alcohol. While we may see some, they are often highly regulated and shown with less frequency than other advertisements. This is because they are restricted substances and are understood to have addictive qualities, limiting their promotion to specific venues and time slots to avoid impressionable demographics such as children.

Now, take a moment to think about all of the advertisements we see for lotteries, casinos, and sports betting. More likely than not we see some form of gambling advertisement every day, and in different places than other advertisements. We are now seeing ads for casinos and lotteries on social media, in popups on websites, on billboards, and on television. Advertising for gambling is a lot less regulated and restricted than other addictive activities and we can see this from the volume and frequency of these ads compared to others. This begs the question: Why is gambling advertising less restricted than substances when it is known to be addictive? Probably because it’s not viewed as such by the general public. Many people believe that behavioural addictions are “not as bad” as substance use disorders due to the supposed lack of health risks and the view that partaking in the activity is more of a choice than a compulsion. However, it is important that we begin to understand the subtler impacts of addiction and recognize that behavioural addictions, such as gambling, carry their own health risks and compulsive elements much like drugs and alcohol.

How addiction presents itself

There is often greater awareness of substance-related addictions as we are able to easily understand the addictive chemical reactions that occur when a substance is used. The signs of a substance use disorder are also more easily recognizable as it is usually more clear when a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Because of this, we are more likely to give support to those with this type of addiction. However, those that are struggling with behavioural addiction often experience higher levels of stigma and less support than those who suffer from a substance abuse disorder. People have misconceptions about what a behavioural addiction looks like and the signs are not as easily recognized.

The definition of an addiction indicates that a person will feel compelled to engage in a behaviour repeatedly despite substantial harm or negative consequences. This can easily be applied to behaviours and activities just as much as substances. Unlike substances, however, the signs of behavioural addiction are not as obvious. It can be difficult to tell when an individual has last gambled or lost money, and there are few outward physical symptoms to identify. While it may be true that people are less at risk of developing certain cancers if they gamble compared to smoking cigarettes, there are still strong implications for a person’s mental wellbeing. While it may not always be obvious, it is important that we recognize that there are still valid reasons to be concerned when a person is experiencing a behavioural addiction and to offer supports where available.

Stigma and behavioural addiction

Finally, stigma can be one of the most damaging effects of living with a behavioural addiction. Often times this stigma leads to judgment of those struggling with an addiction and can make it more difficult for a person to get help. As mentioned previously, many people lack the understanding of behavioural addiction and the negative effects it may have on a person’s life. Many view those with behavioural addictions as people just making poor decisions, being irresponsible, or even immoral. They frequently ask questions like why didn’t you just stop? that are intended to guilt and shame the individual. Unfortunately, with most behavioural addictions, there is such a strong sense of shame that it makes it much less likely for someone to disclose their problem due to the fear of intense judgement. This often leads to lack of supports available to those that really need it and can result in their addiction intensifying.

Overall, as a society we need to re-examine the ways in which we view addiction, the language we use to describe it, and the normalization of potentially harmful activities. While everyone is permitted to make their own choices, we do need to be critical of the messaging we receive from advertisers and adopt the perspective of a person who has a problem in order to reduce the harm. Making sure we are offering supports to those in need and recognizing the signs of addiction more clearly is an important method of destigmatizing addiction. Finally, adopting an empathetic lens will encourage those with an active addiction to utilize these community supports and receive the help they need.

If you or a loved one are struggling with gambling related harm, contact the Saskatchewan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-306-6789.

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