Compulsive gambling, medically called ludomania, is as much of a disease as alcoholism and other forms of addiction.
"Sufferers cannot control these conditions any more than they can control whether they contract flu," said Dr Heidi Sinclair, a psychiatrist with the South African Responsible Gambling Foundation (SARGF).
She was speaking to HuffPost SA in light of National Responsible Gambling Awareness Month this November.
Sinclair dispelled the myth that a gambling disorder is about weakness or the lack of willpower. "It's not simply about the exhilaration of taking a bet or the thrill of winning."
In fact, science has observed that a compulsive gambler winning money displays the same brain behaviour as a cocaine addict receiving a hit, she pointed out.
Alarmingly, if untreated, the disorder may lead to suicide. According to the foundation, about 22 percent of problem gamblers in South Africa have attempted suicide, with 52 percent thinking of suicide by the time they get help.
Further, a compulsive gambler's problems may be compounded by other addictive behaviours such as alcoholism and mental health issues such as mood and anxiety disorders, in addition to the financial toll it takes on the addict and their family.
And this is why treatment is essential, said Sinclair. "We need to afford problem gamblers the same understanding and help them as much as we can."
Where to get help
Unlike other disorders that can be detected by a physical examination or blood tests, a psychiatric evaluation is required to diagnose a gambling disorder.
Here are a few options for getting help:
1. SARGF 24-hour counselling line -- 0800 006 008. The organisation can also provide a treatment counsellor and up to eight free treatment sessions.
2. Gamblers Anonymous SA. The group provides support for gambling addicts. If in Gauteng, you can contact them on 060 634 7140, in Western Cape on 074 837 4001 and KwaZulu-Natal on 031 209 6359.