Poker and mental health

Barry Carter addresses some of the mental health issues poker can exacerbate, and encourages everyone to remove the stigma around them.

As I have probably mentioned a thousand times, I am the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker, and the experience of working with Jared Tendler began a fascination with psychology for me. Jared is a licensed mental health counselor and what is quite unique about his approach is how he used issues that materialise in poker and sports as a way of treating much deeper mental health issues. He saw this as a way to overcome the reluctance many men have to talk about their problems. As such it is little surprise that many of the people who have worked with him have found that his advice has helped way beyond poker.

I bring this up because in recent times many leading experts have argued that we are on the brink of a mental health crisis, and recently I have seen more poker players talk about their own struggles. Last week Joe Ingram released a number of videos where he got very personal about how mentally tough poker can be, and this week Jimmy Fricke went beyond poker with a series of very brave tweets about depression and suicide, and how important it is to talk about these things.

When you talk openly about mental health issues, you realise that we all share very similar hopes, fears, joys and struggles. Everyone is fighting a battle in their head you know nothing about, unless you talk about it. Poker players are no different, but I’d suggest there are a few ways in which specific mental health issues may be more prevalent or more severe.

A cruel and lonely game at times

mental health

First of all, the game itself is inherently unfair. When your mental health is tied to your poker results, it is inevitable that you will experience a lot of ups and downs. Final plug for Jared, but this is very much at the core of what he tries to do to help players develop a more stable mental game, by helping them to not let results dictate their emotions. 

For the online players, poker can also be very lonely and isolating. I’ve written before about some of the struggles that come with working from home, and using social media as a proxy for real face-to-face relationships is being shown to be a poor substitute, and maybe even a causes of a lot of problems.

Finally, the vast majority of poker players are men, and there is still a real stigma for men to speak out about their problems. This is one of the reasons why the male suicide rate is so high (76% of all suicides and it is the leading cause of preventable death for men under 35). Most specific mental health issues are more skewed towards one gender or the other, but women are vastly better at discussing their issues and asking for help, which helps them manage problems before they get too severe, something men should strive to emulate.

There is no stigma in sharing

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I say all this from some personal experience. I’ve known people who committed suicide seemingly out of the blue without any warning signs. Away from suicide, my own Father was so reluctant to share his own issues that he actually went blind for three days before he told anybody. He also died seven years ago and in my own attempt to ‘man up’ I kept a lot of my grief inside, which led me to develop Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, whereby I tried to control every aspect of my life.

This time last year it was becoming a living hell, but about six months ago I started seeing a therapist, and my life got infinitely better. It was the biggest weight lifted of my shoulders and I started seeing the world clearly again. One of my biggest fears for seeing a therapist would be that it would turn me into a victim who dwelled to much on his problems, but quite the opposite happened, and it has made me so much stronger than I thought possible. 

I say all this, to echo Jimmy Fricke, simply to encourage other men and women to speak up if they think they are having mental health issues. I don’t think poker players have it any easier or tougher than anyone else, but there are certainly aspects to poker that likely exacerbate certain mental health issues. Speak up, nobody worth knowing will think worse of you, it will make you feel better and maybe you’ll also help somebody else realise they are not alone and help them to do the same thing.

Have you been affected by the issues in this article? Share your thoughts in the comments:

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Comments (3)

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  • tonypmm


    Full-time poker play makes one bipolar rather fast if one cares too much about the results. The mood becomes correlated with the bankroll size and thus swingy. It helps to be respected for something outside poker so that the poker identity not become the only part of the overall identity.
  • Primrose6789


    Very good article, thank you for speaking out about this topic! I indeed asked my Psychiatrist (I´m MDD-patient) about this and he said that poker shouldn´t lead to an exercerbation - even the opposite is the case: It does you good. And as tony says: It´s good if you have something besides poker if your mood is too dependent on your BR.
  • Primrose6789


    Correction: exAcerbation, sry, typing error (shame on me).