Concern grows over the link between mental health and problem gambling

Mteja ashiriki katika mchezo wa kamari Source: AAP

The comments come as advocates of harm minimisation also continue calls for a royal commission into the gambling industry.

Australians are being encouraged to take a closer look at how gambling might be impacting their mental health.

From scratch lottery tickets to sports betting, Australia is gambling away approximately $24 billion a year, according to the latest Australian Gambling Statistics.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform Chief Advocate, the Rev Tim Costello said Australia has the greatest gambling losses per head in the world, 30 per cent higher per capita than Singapore which comes second.

Mr Costello also said gambling addiction has many similarities with other types of addiction. 

"The dopamine released in the brain hits the pleasure centre with the force of cocaine. Pokies are the crack cocaine of gambling which leads to rapid addiction. Gamble responsibly is as sensible as saying use heroin responsibly."

Mr Costello added the shame associated with addiction was stopping people from getting help.

“If you're addicted you're addicted. And from addiction the shame the silence the mental health issues start to occur and I have to say with the ubiquity of sports betting, people with mental health illnesses are the ones who often take up gambling because of that hope that I am a winner, I am not a loser is pumped at them all the time," he said.

Tim Costello Alliance for Gambling Reform Chief Advocate
The head of the Monash Gambling and Social Determinants Unit Associate Professor Charles Livingstone agrees the mental health impact of problem gambling especially poker machine use is only now being understood.

He said many factors can make someone more vulnerable to addiction including social isolation and in some cases the stress that comes from discrimination.

Professor Livingstone added the true rate of addiction may be under-reported in migrant communities who are less likely to seek help.

"One of the other forms of stress is discrimination and difficulties that non-English-speaking background communities often experience in our big cities and I think there is increasing evidence that NESB people are suffering disproportionately when it comes to the harms associated with gambling." Professor Livingstone said.

Some of the funding for charities, not-for-profit groups and community programs including those assisting problem gamblers come from what is known as the Community Benefits Scheme.

The scheme requires gaming venues to make payments to the Responsible Gambling Fund when a venue increases the number of gaming machines.

Professor Livingstone said researchers at the Monash Gambling and Social Determinants Unit have tracked how this money is being managed by venues and said there is a lack of transparency across the states and territories about where it is going.

"Clubs, of course, will say that everything they do will benefit the community but that's very difficult when you have for example a very big football club such as an AFL club or a rugby league club which is actually giving most of the money to elite sportspeople and to elite sports facilities,” he said.

Professor Livingstone said in Victoria where records were available, much of the money set aside for the Community Benefits Scheme was going back to the clubs.

“So what we end up with is a scenario in which over 70 per cent of revenue that is claimed to support community, actually ends up going straight back to the club themselves and benefits only the club and generally not even the club members," he said.

Shane Lucas from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation urged people who may be worried about their gambling behaviour to reach out for help.

"We're certainly very conscious that the first thing anyone needs to do who is feeling that they are experiencing a gambling problem is to really find that person within their family, within their friendship group to talk and to share their problem and then to look for the forms of support,” Mr Lucas said.

Mr Lucas said there is a range of services available across Australia to assist people concerned about their gambling.

“In Victoria we fund gamblers help services across the state which provides a combination of financial and therapeutic counselling to people and can link them to a range of services depending on their circumstances. But, really, that first conversation needs to be with that trusted other person," he said.

Mr Costello would like to see more action from both sides of government to reduce the mental health and social effects of problem gambling but said without a Royal Commission into the industry, reform was unlikely to occur.

"I personally believe, like we needed it with banks, like we needed it with aged care, we need a Royal Commission to expose how captured we are because the message is out," he said.

"Most people hate pokies. Every survey says up to 75 per cent of them in Victoria want them all removed. You think that democracy would demand that of government.

"But no it doesn't because of political capture of donations and easy revenue."

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Multicultural Problem Gambling Service on 1800 856 800. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

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