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Don't take a chance - get help to beat gambling addiction

by Jonathan Watt, CAS Programme manager.

This article was first published in the Herald on 23 December 2020.

This year Citizens Advice Scotland launched the Gambling Support Service, a new project that aims to adapt our network to support people who are experiencing gambling harms.

Over half of all adults in Britain participate in some form of gambling and official statistics estimate that two million are experiencing some level of gambling harm, including over 430,000 ‘problem gamblers’.  

The very nature of gambling means that it is often a hidden addiction. People who feel little or no control over their gambling often experience shame and guilt and tend not to disclose much about their gambling behaviour, so it becomes a vicious circle: they gamble with larger amounts of money to get the same feeling of excitement or recover their losses. The research shows that this often leads not just to financial problems but also to relationship breakdown, alcohol problems, depression, even suicide. In fact problem gambling is defined by the World Health Organisation as an addictive behaviour with implications for mental health.

And yet it has never been easier to gamble. The traditional fruit machine has been overtaken by high-tech gaming machines like fixed odd betting terminals (FOBTs), while the phones in our pockets let us place a bet with just a few clicks on an app on sporting events all over the world.

We’re even seeing gambling become a factor in the video games we may be buying this Christmas. ‘Loot boxes’ provide gamers with a randomised item in exchange for money. The items won can aid gameplay, but they aren’t always beneficial for the player.

The Royal Society for Public Health is calling for loot boxes in video games to be classed as a form of gambling, as buying a loot box is like taking a punt and it normalises the behaviour for children.

In fact, research commissioned by the Gambling Commission shows that gambling has become part of everyday life for children and young people. 350,000 11-16 year-olds are reported as having spent their own money on gambling in the last week. This rate is lower than that for drinking alcohol, but higher than that for using e-cigarettes, smoking tobacco or taking illegal drugs.

So from scratch cards to smartphones, FOBTs to loot boxes, gambling today is more accessible than ever, making it easy for those who want to start, and very difficult for those who want to control a gambling problem.

Yet despite the prevalence of harms associated with gambling, one in two people in Britain with a gambling disorder has not accessed any treatment or support.

Is gambling a particular problem at Christmas? Well, there’s this, from a reformed gambler on the gambling therapy website I read the other day.

“I always found Christmas so hard. My gambling would escalate during December, I would try to win more money for presents. Of course I would never win and then be chasing losses…..the merry go round of hell!

“One year I lost everything and told everyone my purse had been stolen. I even went through the process of getting a new driver’s licence, bank cards etc. My beautiful mum giving me money for presents that year.

“Another year my kids suffered. Presents were scarce. Years later my best friend told me she remembered that Christmas and how disappointed my children were. She never said a word to me at the time but knew exactly what I had done.
“The pressure of Christmas can be unbearable. The feelings of loneliness and isolation can be devastating. The addiction is smiling and rubbing its hands together…….oh it loves nothing better.”

OK that’s only one quote. But if it’s hard to read, it’s because you know that many people are feeling those sentiments right now.

So, what can we do about all this? Well, the idea behind our new project is that CAB advisers are in a good position to raise awareness of the adverse impacts of gambling, recognise people who may be at risk of or experiencing gambling harms and highlight specialist support organisations. So, if someone presents at a CAB with persistent debts for example, the adviser – as well as offering the financial advice we’ve always offered such clients – will be trained to spot the signs of gambling harms and offer the relevant support. Our new project is all about delivering that training not just to our own CAB advisers, but also to other frontline service providers, like GPs, charities and banks, to enable them to better support people they work with.

The project is funded by the charity GambleAware and delivers evidence-based training and awareness sessions. The trainees won’t necessarily become specialists in gambling treatment, but by spotting the problem and talking about it they will be able to offer brief interventions and advice and refer people to specialist support.

All of which is to say, if you are experiencing harms from gambling or know someone who is, you can contact the National Gambling Treatment Service 24/7 for free, confidential support and advice on 0808 8020 133 or visit www.begambleaware.org for live chat or for more information on the support options available.

And also, if you are involved in an organisation that supports or works with members of the public and you would like to attend the training I’ve been talking about, contact us. The sessions are free and can be delivered online. Email GamblingSupport@scottishcabs.org.uk or contact your local CAB.

Let’s get organised in the fight to beat problem gambling across Scotland.