The rise of cryptocurrencies has created a new breed of gamblers who could face the same psychological issues as those consumed by compulsive betting, doctors have said.
Cryptocurrencies are digital coins that are not backed by government authorities but traded all over the world via the internet with Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple being some of the most popular.
When Bitcoin hit close to $20,000 (Dh73,500) at the end of 2017, a surge of new investors were attracted to the online trading markets, but the value has since plummeted to about $7,000.
Volatile rises and falls in the value of cryptocurrencies are what makes the growing industry attractive to gamblers, psychologists have said – and can have equally devastating results.
“Cryptocurrency addiction is becoming more prevalent in today's society and is just another form of gambling which addicts can be drawn to,” said Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, clinical director and consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.
“The problem of gambling addiction is known psychologically as pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or gambling disorder.
“This usually involves the inability of a person to control impulsive gambling even though they clearly see the detrimental effects of it on themselves and their family.”
Addiction to cryptocurrency trading is a behavioural addiction, similar to gambling addiction or compulsive online "day trading" on the stock market.
Dramatic and unpredictable fluctuations in prices create a similar "high" to that experienced by gamblers who see a big bet come in at the races or other sporting event, experts have said.
While exciting, it can also be additive and financially disastrous.
One of Europe’s leading addiction rehabilitation clinics, Castle Craig in Scotland, has received requests to treat cryptocurrency addiction and recently highlighted it as an area of concern.
“The high risk, fluctuating cryptocurrency market appeals to the problem gambler by providing excitement and an escape from reality,” said Chris Burn, a gambling therapist at Castle Craig Hospital.
“Bitcoin, for example, has been heavily traded and huge gains and losses were made. It’s a classic bubble situation.”
While the UK hospital has added cryptocurrency addiction to its existing schedule of gambling rehabilitation programmes, doctors in Dubai said treatments offered here are similar.
Compulsive betting on cryptocurrency markets such as Bitcoin is a fast-growing, worldwide problem.
The issue is commonly associated with other psychological and mood problems like personality disorder, substance abuse and dependence, ADHD, stress, depression, anxiety, or even bipolar disorder.
“Features of this kind of behaviour are associated with the need of the person, like with many other addictions, to be secretive or illusive about it,” Dr Abdul-Hamid said.
“The person will have great difficulty resisting or controlling their gambling behaviour despite the clear losses they have experienced.
“Such individuals will continue to gamble even if they do not have the money to do so.
“The problem is characterised by the fact that relatives and friends of the individual are likely to be more concerned with their gambling than the individual themselves.”
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version 5 recognises gambling disorder as a diagnosable addiction subject to certain criteria. Cryptocurrency addiction treatment is covered by this.
Research suggests there are currently more than 13 million people in the world actively trading in cryptocurrencies.
Although figures for gambling are not available in the UAE, where it is prohibited in Islam, in 2015 the UK’s Gambling Commission found more than 2 million people are either addicted to gambling or are at risk. Online gambling is one of the fastest growing addictions in the world today.
“The first step in seeking help for this addiction is to have a psychiatric assessment to establish if there is an underlying cause that needs to be treated first,” Dr Abdul-Hamid said.
“Once this is done and managed, there are many psychotherapeutic approaches to treat the addiction that are usually within the cognitive behavioural therapy or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy approaches that can help treat the addictive behaviour.”