A Silent Gamble
Wednesday, April 18 2012
What’s $500 to you? A couple of weeks rent? Too much to spend in one week on playing cards with your mates? Would you let people know if you lost that much? The standard media image of a problem gambler is a family man or woman in their 40s, but the community affected by dependence on betting is more complex—and uni students make up part of a cohort struggling in silence.
A 2010 Productivity Commission report estimates that Australians lost $19 billion to gambling in 2008-9, or $1500 per adult that gambles. Most researchers are hesitant to estimate the number of at risk young people though, because there’s limited agreement on what constitutes a ‘problem’, but also because few who are truly struggling come into contact with counselors and researchers. The effects of a dependence on gambling can lead to other issues, from missing class and struggling in assessment, to scrounging together food or rent money, and taking out loans or even stealing from friends.
So what do we know? Australian research data suggests that in the 18-29 age group, anywhere between 1-4% gamble to a point of dependency. This group is at risk of having a negative impact on themselves and others. Felicity Rousseaux of the University of Melbourne Counselling Service says that there are many potential reasons for this. “We conceive problem gambling as an addiction, and would treat it as such. And it’s often a case of distraction, with the promise of a reward driving the behavior, because you are therefore able to avoid other issues [in your life],” she says. Penny Wilson, CEO of Victoria’s Responsible Gambling Advocacy Centre, agrees. “Peer support and connectedness are crucial as protective factors against gambling problems,” she says. When that support is lacking, the possibility of addiction may increase.
Anna Thomas, a research fellow at Swinburne University, told Farrago that most uni students who gamble do not develop a problem. “However, our research suggests that there’s an increased risk for certain groups, like international students,” she says. Thomas’ research saw some students admit to spending $500 or more in a week on gambling. “Many of these students haven’t had the opportunity to gamble in their own country,” she says. Her report, comparing gambling between international and domestic students, suggests that those coming to Australia start gambling for the first time or more frequently than local student counterparts. The increased number of problem cases for international students is attributed to factors like isolation, access to new types of entertainment, and a lack of information about the risks and how to help others out.
The 2010 Productivity Commission report suggested that two thirds of those suffering would not admit having problems to a counselor. Rousseaux stresses that shame can play a role in finding help, resulting in students not receiving the help to which they are entitled. Yet Thomas and others wonder whether students are aware that they can get help that is confidential and either low cost or free. Universities appear to provide information about drugs and alcohol readily, but when it comes to gambling they’re almost completely silent—both on the myths of betting, and how to get help.
One of the enduring myths is that you can always play for a profit, and it’s an idea that incentivises many to start betting in the first place. Type ‘Free Bets’ into Google and you get 14 million hits; Facebook pages and betting agencies promising you that if you just start with one flutter, they’ll match your money for the first round. $100, $250, $300—it seems that you can keep playing while betting agencies pay on your behalf. Essentially, betting organisations use ‘free money’ in a bid to make gambling appear low risk. Experts told Farrago, however, that making a consistent profit is usually impossible. “Overestimating the likelihood of winning, or having superstitions…is problematic,” Wilson says. Thomas agrees, “Some students [in my research] expressed erroneous beliefs about winning, regarding controlling games that were purely luck,” she says.
Several professionals told Farrago that they hadn’t ever been involved in, or didn’t see it necessary to provide help targeted specifically at young people. However, the perception that gambling is a middle aged person’s addiction may still be lingering to the detriment of young gamblers. Regardless of age, help is available to those who need it. Services like Gambler’s Help (phone assistance) and buddy counselling programs like Peer Connection also told Farrago that their services would provide a partner for counselling regardless of age. Thomas acknowledges that there’s a wealth of help out there, but the next step is working with universities to establish what information to pass on. Letting young people out there know they’re not alone and that help exists could go some way to bringing gambling addiction out of the silence.
If you feel your gambling is beyond your control or you require support, call Gamblers Help on 1800 858 858
Lifeline: 13 11 14
University of Melbourne Counselling Service: 8344 6927