What springs to mind when you think of gambling?
Perhaps you think of slot machines in fancy casinos, Friday night poker games with friends, or jangly TV commercials touting the latest gaming app. The notion of gambling may seem innocuous, and perhaps you wouldn’t consider it to be any more than harmless fun. However, a murkier side to gambling often goes unspoken about- gambling addiction.
A gambling addiction physically and mentally compels people to gamble excessive amounts of money despite knowing the devastating consequences of losing. Although foundations have been placed in the past to prevent gambling from harmfully impacting our mental health, we need to be realistic about how stable these foundations are, especially as we are faced with various sociological changes in contemporary society.
The stigma of gambling addiction
A common misassumption is that if gamblers know they are risking it all, they shouldn’t gamble. In order words, they’ve brought trauma on themselves by engaging in risky behaviour. This is a false and damaging belief. As with all mental illnesses, people are suffering from things invisible to the naked eye, and gambling addiction is one of those hidden conditions.
What’s more, this resounds on those around them; their families break down, they may lose their job, car, or home, and some sadly turn to suicide as a way out. This is why the WHO recognises gambling addiction as a mental health disorder and why UKAT encourages the UK government to be fully aware that gambling, like any other potentially destructive behaviour, is consistently regulated for our health and well-being.
What has the government done so far?
This isn’t to say that the government are unaware of the problems gambling can incur; seventeen years ago, they introduced the Gambling Act of 2005, which focuses on three main principles:
- Social responsibility and protection of the public, especially children and the vulnerable, e.g., you must be over the age of 18 to gamble.
- A new rule has centred on fair regulation to ensure that gambling is regulated and rules are being met.
- Collaborating with the gambling industry, mental health organisations, etc., and encouraging people to gamble responsibly, many advertisements will caveat their call to action by encouraging people to gamble sensibly.
Assessment of the 2005 gambling act…
It’s great that children, teenagers, and those classed as vulnerable adults are safeguarded from gambling and as of the 2005 act, gambling organisations will have to pay fines of up to thousands of pounds if a vulnerable person or child gambles. There will be criminal offences if crime and corruption are in any way involved in gambling too. Furthermore, all gambling organisations need to have a permit and slot machines and bandits require licences to operate, ensuring that no cheating or corruption occurs. Lastly, gambling establishments are obliged to run thorough background checks on customers to ensure they are financially viable to wager various quantities of money. Whilst these regulations are undoubtedly beneficial, there have been no further adjustments in the last seventeen years.
So let’s fast forward to 2022, where we are faced with a post covid recession, and as it stands, around 7 million people in the UK are negatively impacted by gambling addiction. It’s estimated that over 2 million people currently have a gambling problem, and up to 5 million people experience trauma around someone else’s gambling addiction, e.g., children of a parent who may have committed suicide or lost their home, thus rendering them heartbroken and destitute. This indicates that the current regulations aren’t enough; whilst the 2005 act enables gambling organisations to place a cap on how much a person can spend, the integrity of this cap is questionable. Ultimately, this could result in people gambling when it is not financially feasible for them to do so, thereby entrapping them in devastating debt, paving the way for feelings of hopelessness and depression.
The effects of the pandemic
Non-surprisingly, gambling figures drastically rose during the pandemic; within the last year, almost one and a half million people in the UK admit to having a gambling problem, and tragically thirteen per cent of those have attempted suicide because of the crippling effect it’s had on their lives. The fact that gambling statistics rose during the pandemic indicates people are tempted to gamble when they’re feeling most isolated, making them more susceptible to the countless advertisements enticing them to engage in betting.
This brings us to question the impact of mainstream media and advertising on problem gambling. Since 2005, the planet has been a surge in technological advances, such as smartphones, where you can access a gambling app anywhere and anytime at the touch of a screen. Not to mention the rise of social media platforms, and now more than ever, we are bombarded with advertising, whether it be direct or indirect; we no longer just see adverts on TV or posters. Our smartphones overwhelm us with temptations to engage in specific behaviours and thus, spend money. Gambling adverts can spring up whilst scrolling social media platforms- even if the person is not searching for them.
Furthermore, TV channels broadcast commercials during widespread programmes such as famous sports tournaments, subtly inducing sports fans, which may be caught up in the excitement of a football game, to place a bet. Whilst it may not seem particularly harmful, it can be complicated for anyone with a previous or current gambling problem to escape the constant temptation to gamble.
What more can be done?
Keep breaking the stigma…
Many possible underlying causes drive people to gambling addiction, which are associated with co-existing mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc. Although the government work with gambling-aware organisations, there is still a general lack of understanding of gambling addiction, and many gamblers don’t seek help due to shame and fear. This strongly indicates that more needs to be done to bust the stigmas of gambling. For example, women are less likely than men to seek out support due to embarrassment associated with prejudices against gambling addiction.
“The public knows smoking cigarettes are dangerous, which helps us to be compassionate about tobacco addiction and seek support for this. It will help if the public is similarly aware of the addictive nature of gambling products.”
Clinical lead for NHS gambling clinics
When we purchase alcohol, we are advised to do so in moderation. If we buy tobacco products, we are warned of the health risks by looking at the packet. When we gamble, we are informed to be aware and take breaks if we think we are becoming overwhelmed. But how does a person know if they are crushed until they do have a problem? Whilst the guidelines mean well, there is a blind spot in its method.
One of the ways where we can increase visibility on this is by being more aware of the marketing campaigns and reducing or ceasing promoting gambling at times when people are most susceptible.
For example, if a person is watching a football game alone and enjoys an alcoholic drink, a gambling advert might entice them to place a bet with tempting offers hinting that the odds could be in their favour. This may induce people to gamble whilst they are in a state of excitement- eager to enjoy a game and under the influence of alcohol. However, they might have decided not to bet if they were sober and in a calmer state of mind. Another example is if a person in recovery is having a tough day, they may scroll through social media and then see a pop-up for a gambling ad at random. This could trigger them into relapse, given that it is so easily done at the touch of a button. Therefore, gambling companies should be more mindful of how and when they reach their customers.
The takeaway: we need to keep up with the times
Although the WHO and the government have established problem gambling as a mental health issue, we believe there is still plenty of room for further safeguarding. Furthermore, even though the gambling act of 2005 created firm boundaries, a lot has changed in the last seventeen years; a rise in digital media, a global pandemic and economic turbulence. Therefore, we believe the government should reassess and update the current act to meet a more modern climate.
After all, we are a culture that claims to be progressive about mental health awareness, so we need to constantly review and assess how gambling threatens the well-being of those around us.