Gambling, Gaming & Technology Use
Knowledge Exchange


Names for Problem Gambling

Some of the most common names used to describe excessive involvement in gambling are:

  • gambling disorder
  • pathological gambling
  • compulsive gambling
  • problem gambling.

Gambling disorder

Gambling disorder is the diagnostic term currently used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the reference manual of the American Psychiatric Association that is widely used in Canada by psychiatrists to diagnose mental health problems. Gambling disorder is described as ongoing and repetitive engagement in gambling activities that leads to significant distress or impairment. Learn more about the diagnostic criteria for gambling disorder in the DSM-5.

Pathological gambling

Pathological gambling is defined as frequent, recurrent engagement in gambling activities that causes severe consequences in a person’s life, including social-, career-, finance- and relationship- related problems. It is the diagnostic term that was used in the DSM-IV, the previous edition of the reference manual. It is still commonly used in the scientific literature, along with the term compulsive gambling.

Compulsive gambling

Compulsive gambling is a term that is commonly used in the general public, in the United States and by Gamblers Anonymous. However, the term is not entirely accurate because gambling is not a compulsive disorder. It is instead classified as an addictive disorder in the DSM-5 due to its similarities with substance use disorders. However, there is still an ongoing debate about how it should be classified.

Problem gambling

Problem gambling is the term that is most commonly used in Canada. It is descriptive and inclusive of the idea that this problem can exist on a continuum from very minor to very severe. It is often used to describe gambling behaviour that involves some type of harmful consequence. Problem gambling includes, but is not limited to, compulsive gambling and pathological gambling. It is often considered the most effective term because it does not label or stigmatize the person in the way that the terms pathological or compulsive might.

Language matters

The behaviour―excessive gambling with harmful consequences―is the issue on which to focus. People have the problem, but they are not the problem. For example, calling someone a “problem gambler” can reduce them to one thing: a problem. Describing the situation rather than labelling the person―for example, “someone who has a gambling problem” or “someone with problem gambling”―is less blaming and reduces stigma.

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