Tackling the scourge of gambling addiction

Sam Matthews

Reporter:

Sam Matthews

The Kilkenny-based centre, Aislinn, which has for years treated people for alcohol and drug addiction, will be part of a new service to tackle a scourge which is wreaking havoc in local communities.

The Kilkenny-based centre, Aislinn, which has for years treated people for alcohol and drug addiction, will be part of a new service to tackle a scourge which is wreaking havoc in local communities.

Gambling addiction can be a silent menace, often going unnoticed by loved ones as it tears apart someone’s life. Unlike drug or alcohol addiction, often there is little sign that somebody has a gambling problem until they have run into massive debt. The issue recently came to national attention following the tragic deaths in Carlow of Eoghan and Ruairi Chada, who were murdered by their father, Sanjeev. He had accumulated huge gambling debts.

A three-year internal study by Aiseiri Addiction Treatment Services has revealed gaps in the services available to problem gamblers nationally, and a lack of specific, tailored rehab programmes.

From this month, new programmes to treat gambling addiction and those affected are being piloted by Aiseiri. Paul Mullins of Aiseiri, based at the Aislinn Centre in Ballyragget, recently spoke to the Kilkenny People to discuss the issue.

“There are similarities across all addictions, but there are also differences,” he says.

“While gamblers don’t require methadone programmes or they don’t require hospitalisations, they do require very specific programmes, which we’ve now developed.”

Gambling addiction is a problem he thinks is growing. An internal study carried out by him and his team found that 10% of Aiseiri residents over three years were actually there for gambling.

“Anecdotally, when I’m meeting other counsellors, they are saying ‘look, there seems to be an increase in gamblers coming in, problem gamblers,” he says.

“But it’s anecdotal evidence – you can’t go to the minister and say ‘we all think there’s an increase’. They want empirical evidence.”

Paul and his team then did something that has never been done before. They began a three-year study of problem gambling within the existing Aiseiri service – how many gamblers were presenting, and so on.

What they found were gaps in their own services. For example, a 28-day residential treatment programme is not suitable for many people; they may be working full time, they can’t afford it, and so on.

In some cases, gamblers were having to effectively ‘sit in’ on treatment programmes for other addictions.

“Gamblers need specific services,” says Paul.

“It won’t be good enough just to put them into a programme where they’ll just be treated the same as people who are in there for other addictions. And they sit in on lectures for people with alcohol and drugs problems, where they won’t get anything from them, because they don’t have that problem – they have a gambling problem.”

Unlike addictions such as substance misuse, the financial problems tend to be greater with problem gamblers. In the economic climate, it is hard to get money, hard to get credit to pay off a debt.

“Historically, gamblers don’t come until they are in dire straits,” says Paul.

“If someone comes into us, any of our centres, for an alcohol or drug problem, they will have short to medium term financial problems. With the gamblers, it is always long term.”

Inside the treatment centre, vigilance is needed. You can stop people watching racing or reading the sports pages, but some gamblers can still find a way.

“At treatment centres, alcohol and drugs are absolutely banned – you can’t bring them in,” he says.

“But gamblers can come in and do what we call ‘mind gambling’. They can actually continue to gamble inside.”

He gives me a recent example. In this case, it was another resident who was able to point to counsellors what was happening.

Residents sit in one room, which has a connecting door to the coffee room, where counsellors come and go at frequent intervals.

“This resident was trying to get a bet going with others as to which counsellor was going to walk out first,” says Paul.

For some people, the idea of a problem gambler remains the unfortunate oul fella in a dark corner of the bookies, with a form sheet tucked under one arm. It’s an outdated stereotype, and as the nature of gambling has changed, so too has the punter.

“When I say across the board, I mean across the board,” says Paul.

“People from every single walk of life, from every single employment category you can think of.”

The latest television ads, from Ladbrokes, for example, feature a group of go-getting young men, who like to kick around a ball and have great banter. At the end of the ad, the viewer is urged to live ‘the Ladbrokes life’. It’s an effective marketing strategy used for years by the drinks industry, selling a lifestyle image to young people and those who have bought into the dubious phenomenon of ‘lad culture’. And there is no shortage of bookmakers in our Medieval city.

Paul says the solution to confronting the issue of advertising lies with the Gambling Bill – perhaps something to address standards for the industry.

“It needs to be looked at, some kind of a watershed,” he says.

“It’s really important, I think, that the Gambling Bill is brought into law. I don’t know why it’s languishing around or what the hold up is. Everyone seems to be in favour of it, but it’s lying in the Department of Justice.”

New technologies have made it easier than ever to access gambling or make a bet. There is no need to be in a bookmakers or a casino – all you need is a mobile phone.

Often, the enticement of a free bet is what makes an otherwise unassuming, casual gambler sign up. Depending how that goes, people can end up either having a small taste of success, or chasing money they never had. The danger of a phone app.

“It lies first of all in the solitary nature,” says Paul.

“And you don’t have the cash on you. If you had your wallet and you were down to your last, something inside you might go ‘Jesus’. But if you go €50 on this, I’ve lost, so now I’ll chase it. Just want to break even.”

The fact that a gambling addiction can remain undetected means it can lie behind myriad other problems in peoples’ lives – the loss of a job, divorce or relationship break-up. Gamblers can keep a problem from loved ones, often with the misguided notion they are protecting them.

Paul contends there is a much higher rate of suicide among problem gamblers than with other addictions and in general populations. He also wonders aloud how many people have ended up in prison as a result of a gambling problem.

Following on from their three-year study, Paul and his team came up with three programmes. One is a one-week programme for gamblers at Aislinn, run in a separate bungalow away from the main centre. Costing €1,000, it will involve small numbers – a maximum of eight people.

Then, there is a programme for the families involving counselling and group therapy. Again, it is the first of its kind in Ireland.

“The families need education around it, because if someone is going back and they relapse, there are no physical signs,” says Paul.

“If you or I take a drink or drugs, you’ll smell it off your breath, you’ll fall down, you’ll stagger, slur your speech. Gambling, you won’t know. So they could be spending the mortgage in six months, could be in dire trouble.”

Finally, there is the outpatient programme. It is run from Waterford over the course of eight weeks, one-to-one counselling one night a week, and then another session on Saturday mornings. This allows people to continue their normal lives, they don’t have to take time off work or from the community.

Another thing Paul hopes to roll out in the medium-term future is an educational programme for schools – something to mirror the deterrents and warnings already in place for things like drugs and alcohol. Gambling hasn’t yet become part of this debate.

Aiseiri is clearly trying to respond with the resources it has, but there is an acknowledgment that the service needs funding. They need the HSE or one of the agencies to get behind it. Gambling, says Paul, needs to be dealt with as a public health issue.

“This cohort have, so far in this country, been missed out in relation to a specific programme,” he says.

“They are not getting the treatments they deserve. It’s a public health issue, we need to be responding to it, and it needs funding.”

If there is anybody else out there interested in sponsoring the programmes, Paul would be glad to hear from them. For more information, contact Aiseiri on 056-8833777 or email pmullins@aiseiri.ie.