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Ending the silence on gambling harms: personal stories ring the bell for change

People with lived experience of gambling harms joined researchers and other public health advocates to call for action on the “predatory” gambling industry during a landmark event this week.

The inaugural virtual #CroakeyGO, sponsored by the Alliance for Gambling Reform, provided a platform for listening and sharing peoples’ stories during Gambling Harm Awareness Week in Victoria and NSW, as journalist Cate Carrigan reports below. It trended nationally on Twitter.


Cate Carrigan writes:

In the remote Northern Territory town of Tennant Creek, there are two gaming lounges. With a population of around four thousand, and betting machines in easy reach, there are also Aboriginal families reeling from the impact of gambling addiction.

Warumungu man Ethan Taylor, who grew up outside the town, knows all about it. He’s seen the impact of gambling in Aboriginal communities, saying poverty is often the driver.

Ethan Taylor

A board member of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, Taylor says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately affected by gambling harms.

“The gambling industry preys on trauma, and it preys on pain, and it preys on economic hardship,” he says.

“And when we look at the story of Indigenous Peoples on this land over the last 200 years … it’s a story of pain, of trauma, of genocide, of hurt and harm.”

Taylor says inter-generational addiction is a big problem in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, with the issue often overlooked when he’d like to see if out in the open.

It was stories of lived experience, like the one from Taylor, that led the first virtual #CroakeyGO walk across Bunurong, Whadjuk Nyoongar, Wurundjeri and Dharawal Country on Monday.

Sharing stories

During the event, a joint initiative between Croakey and the Alliance for Gambling reform, participants shared stories of guilt, self-doubt, family violence, recovery and resilience in the face of an industry that is – as described by the Alliance’s Tim Costello – based on a business model that depends on destroying lives.

Map showing where the virtual walk took place

Speaking from Whadjuk Nyoongar Country, in Western Australia, Taylor acknowledged Elders, past, present and emerging, and said his experience of gambling harms had driven his decision to join the Alliance.

Taylor says poverty in remote communities is devastating and, coupled with a lack of housing and little employment, promotes a feeling of desperation.

“There are multiple government schemes [such as The Community Development Program (CDP) work-for-the-dole system] that are driving Indigenous People into poverty, particularly in remote communities.”

He says the gambling industry thrives in this sort of environment “where people feel the only thing they can do to provide for their families is to go down to the pokies”.

Harming families

Victorian woman Sunenna Sharma’s story is one of resilience and hope after escaping marriage to a man with a gambling addiction.

The #CroakeyGo virtual walkers heard her story from Wurundjeri Country via a video from the Three Sides of a Coin theatre group, which tells stories of gambling harm to educate and promote change.

Sharma told of coming to Australia with her three daughters to marry her “Prince Charming”, an Australian man she met in her home country of Fiji.

Her husband found her a job in a factory, with long hours and weekend shifts, but for him, work was elusive. When he did find work, the pay cheques disappeared.

The situation started to unravel. Things started to disappear: the TV, the washing machine and the electricity was cut off. It spiralled from there, with Sharma moving from suburb-to-suburb, and state-to-state over six years to escape her husband.

Sharma, who has written a memoir, “The Story of a Gambler’s Wife”, says when she left: “He made life really hard … wherever I was living”

He blamed people giving her shelter, lied and cried, stalked her, accused her of being with another man and begged her to come back to him.

“Within the six years of my journey, my girls must have changed (primary) school twenty or thirty times,” says Sharma.

Then Sharma decided she wasn’t going to run anymore: “I didn’t want to change their high school … I paid my life insurance, made my will, hoping, ‘if he kills me, at least my children will be safe’.”

Throughout the struggle, no-one – including social workers – wanted to talk about gambling, she says.

After finally getting out of the relationship, Sharma found Three Sides of a Coin, which enabled her to find her voice and tell her story; at last feeling she hadn’t done anything wrong. #CroakeyGO participants sent warm messages of appreciation for the video.

Family violence

Dr Anna Thomas of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) underlined the message of Sharma’s story, citing a recent report on gambling and intimate partner violence, which highlighted the prevalence of economic abuse among women experiencing violence.

The Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) report found that while gambling doesn’t cause family violence, it can exacerbate it, especially when there are associated gender-power imbalances.

Partners manipulated women, controlling finances and decision-making; stealing money and taking bank cards, and leaving women feeling “to blame” for the situation.

Coercive control and exploitation kept women dependent and feeling unable to leave; with the ones who did go often left destitute and in debt, with little prospect of regaining financial independence.

Thomas outlined recommendations, including displaying information about gambling and family violence in gambling venues, better training of venue staff on the issues, creating alternative safe recreational spaces for women, and tightening regulation of the gambling industry.

Recovery spotlight

CroakeyGO participants also engaged with vivid storytelling from Melbourne man Paul Fung in a video from the Three Sides of the Coin theatre group.

It showed flashes of his thoughts as he told of his slide into gambling and then recovery: ‘trying to make a better life’, ‘betting on horses’, ‘borrowing money’, ‘what if I lose?’

Gambling addiction saw him betting increasing amounts of money, stealing, and losing his brother’s house.

“When the gambling stopped it was scary,” says Paul. He felt, empty, not knowing who he was.

His brother, who had cut off connection for two years, then texted him and they met, with the brother explaining his concern was about the “deceptiveness and not about the money”.

“After that we went and had dinner with my parents and they were so joyous. My family has forgiven me but can I forgive myself? Who am I? What are my values?,” Paul asks in the video.

“I gambled to escape from my worries. I never felt good enough. Running away was my number one thing … I was looking for gold but in the wrong places. I didn’t dare to look at me and I didn’t like myself.”

Paul says he never used to like anybody but has changed “360 degrees” and now he believes in everybody:

“I hear you; I feel you: is there any way I can support you? That’s my reason, my purpose to share what I’ve learnt through my journey. It’s finding that inner peace that’s gold”.

After the video, he was asked by #CroakeyGO host Anna Bardsley, herself a person with lived experience of gambling harms (see this previous Croakey story), about how his life had changed since they met in 2013.

The realisation that recovery was more than stopping gambling was a big thing for Paul. The journey was about the underlying issues: “…a lot of loneliness, not (feeling) good enough … not being a part of anything were some of the core issues” that led to his addiction.

Stopping gambling was when the real work started. Fung explored his family history, finding a line of compulsive gamblers: extending from his great-grandfather, to grandfather and father.

“I (thought) I can continue … and do as they did, and not take responsibility, or I can change the wheel.”

Mental health

The stories of lived experience – those of people like Ethan Taylor, Sunenna Sharma, Paul Fung and Anna Bardsley – are vital to the work of the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC), according to the Director of Monitoring and Reform, Dr Alex Hains.

“The insight that people with lived experience generously bring to this work is critical to making sure what we do actually works or is effective.”

Hains, speaking from Dharawal Country, said the NMHC has been working with the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) on Australia’s first ever Suicide and Self Harm monitoring system.

Available through AIHW website, the first instalment of data was recently released, bringing together statistics from all states and territories, Australian Bureau of Statistics, government health departments, emergency services, and coronial offices.

Though not specific to gambling, the data includes psycho-social risk factors particularly relevant to gambling: separation and divorce, relationship problems, legal and financial problems.

Hains believes the relationship between gambling and mental illness is complex but undeniable.

“Three out of every four people who are seeking treatment for gambling also have a co-existing psychological disorder,” he said.

Of those, 12 percent have PTSD, 17 percent have anxiety disorder, 30 percent have major depressive disorder, and over 20 percent have an alcohol use disorder.

“Like our relationship with alcohol, maybe gambling is seen as ‘just a bit of fun’ or even a natural part of social interactions in Australia,” says Hains.

But we need to recognise that gambling can be an avoidance behaviour; a way of numbing difficult emotions or ignoring dealing with other problems in your life.

And of course, there’s a whole industry designed to keep you gambling, so that “it’s a very slippery slope between ‘just a bit of fun’ and gambling addiction”.

People who experience gambling harms are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and attempting suicide, he says.

With the current uncertainty due to COVID-19 and bushfire trauma, Hains says there has been an increase in people reaching out for help and accessing services.

One thing he welcomes is the increasing awareness that mental health is connected to our life circumstances.

“And it helps us to look at what we need to do beyond just clinical interventions …. what we could do in our communities to help people cope when things are not going so well.”

The AMHC is also working on a 2030 blueprint for change, shifting the perspective of gambling problems and mental health issues being a cost, to seeing the mental health of the country as something to invest in.

Push for reform

Chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform, Tim Costello, spoke from Bunurong Country, saying gambling is a huge public health issue in Australia and urging all participants to lobby their local MPs for change.

Costello says he was “profoundly shocked” to see SportsBet sponsoring this week’s AFL Brownlow Medal Count on TV. He asked how, after holding a royal commission into child abuse, Australia can still have “state-sanctioned child abuse through gambling advertising”.

With 50 percent of the proceeds from poker machines coming from problem gamblers, it’s clear the business model of the pokies is built on addiction, he says.

“In COVID-19, with pubs and clubs closed, $1.5 billion has been saved in Victoria, with people paying their rent and feeding their kids, because of the forced ‘cold turkey’.”

He wants poker machines closed down between midnight and 10am, calling the current system absurd. This point was echoed by Bardsley, who says no-one using a poker machine at 3am is having fun.

Costello called for #CroakeyGO participants to act: write letters of support to NSW Gaming Minister Victor Dominello, who’s under attack from the industry as he moves to introduce reform, and write to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews urging him to curb poker machine operating hours.

He also encouraged participants to sign an Alliance petition to stop gambling advertising, and to keep framing the debate as a public health issue, with a shift in focus from individuals being the problem to the addictive nature of poker machines.

Bardsley backed the call, saying it’s “well past the time for serious reform in Australia”.

She said: “Maybe together we’ll find the words to change minds and stop gambling harm.”


For more information and help

To learn more about the fight for gambling reform, please visit follow the Alliance for Gambling Reform on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the website.

1800 858 858- Gambler’s Help Line 24/7

Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 – Crisis Support


A virtual walk with Twitter

Before the event began, Croakey’s Melissa Sweet outlined its goals in this Twitter thread, including details of a recent poster presentation about #CroakeyGO to the World Congress on Public Health.

Participants began by acknowledging the Country from where they were joining. This week Dr Amy Bestman from the George Institute is covering #GamblingHarms for @WePublicHealth.

Anna Bardswell – moderating the discussions, with support from the Alliance’s Rebecca Thorpe

Reflections

Conversations continue

Keep following Dr Amy Bestman at @WePublicHealth this week, and also this #GamblingHarms Twitter list.

Tweet on 21 Oct

Twitter analytics

#GamblingHarms trended nationally on Twitter.

From 14-21 October, 186 Twitter accounts engaged with the hashtag, sending 1,062 tweets and creating almost 8.86 million Twitter impressions. Read the Twitter transcript here.

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