Director's blog: When gambling costs more than money

Posted on: Tuesday, 02 August 2011

In his latest blog, Director of Eastern Health’s Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre Professor Dan Lubman discusses gambling addiction and the support services available.

Gambling by its very nature is about money. It’s betting on uncertain outcomes where one person profits from another person’s loss.

We know gambling, like most entertainment, is not free. But there aren’t many other activities where one can spend hundreds of dollars in a very short amount of time. According to the Productivity Commission, the average amount spent by people with gambling problems is about $21,000 a year. At around $400 a week, that’s a holiday to Hawaii every three months.

But is gambling just about money?

According to a recent study by Lorains et al (2011), many people who have gambling problems also experience depression, anxiety and smoke cigarettes. Problem gamblers also have high rates of alcohol problems. We know that some people have one or more of these issues before they start gambling. For these people, gambling offers short-term relief from the situation, but that usually makes their underlying conditions more acute.

Some people do not have health problems before they start to gamble. However, over time they notice that regret at having lost their money again can erode self-esteem and interest in other activities. Hiding bank statements and going missing for periods of time while gambling can put pressure on relationships and lead to lying and loss of trust.

The feeling of gambling-related unease is common – not just from the anxiety that inevitably follows another loss, but in response to hiding the problem from others.

Compared with other addictions, gambling can be a pretty stressful activity. The worry over how to get money to gamble and repay debt; the roller-coaster of losing, winning and losing again over the course of a session, and the sinking feeling when walking away, wishing it had been different. Stress can cause our bodies to age more quickly and we become easily fatigued, prone to illness and if prolonged, it can lead to early death through heart failure.

So are there safe ways to gamble? While there are guidelines to safe drinking, there are no such guidelines for gambling. We know that regular gaming machine players are more likely to have gambling problems, but no research has been able to definitively show how much is too much.

Will going to a venue an hour once a week lead to problems? The answer is we don’t know. However, in the interim it is recommended that people avoid gambling when feeling stressed, depressed, anxious or sad because these can worsen when combined with inevitable losses.

According to a recent Productivity Commission report, up to half a million Australians are at risk or have already developed a problem with gambling. Young males are particularly at risk of developing problems. Fortunately, these men are talking about their gambling addiction with Turning Point’s online counsellors.

In a recent study of service users, almost 60 per cent were males and almost half of all people using the service were under 35 years. Often, these young men have never spoken to anyone about their health or gambling concerns.

Our trained counsellors provide an important first step to minimising harm and turning around the effects of excessive gambling.
If you feel you have a problem with gambling or feel someone close to you does, you are welcome to contact our support services.

Phone: 1800 858 858 or visit www.gamblinghelponline.org.au

Professor Lubman has worked across mental health and drug treatment settings in both the UK and Australia. He is Director of Eastern Health’s Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, and Professor of Addiction Studies and Services at Monash University.