45,000 severe pathological gamblers in Ireland, warns addiction expert

FIle photo.

By James Fogarty

A national survey to determine the level of problem gambling and gambling addiction is urgently needed, say mental health professionals and representatives from Gambling Aware.

A freedom of information request to the Health Research Board (HRB), shows 195 cases were assessed and treated for “gambling addiction as a main problem” in 2016, and 208 cases the previous year.

However the HRB stressed that reporting treatment for gambling addiction is optional and data cannot be considered complete.

Psychiatrist and addiction specialist Colin O’Gara of St John of God Hospital said the figures are much greater than those recorded.

Based on international data, there could be 45,000 severe pathological gamblers in Ireland. Gambling is a €7bn industry in Ireland.

“There isn’t a national prevalent survey equivalent to the Gambling Commission Data in the UK or prior to that the British Gambling Prevalence Survey,” said Prof O’Gara. “These are the big nationwide surveys in the UK that are always quoted in the literature.

Looking at those figures, clearly there are a lot of people suffering and are not getting to treatment.

“Most of the gambling data suggests that one in ten people with severe pathological gambling will get to treatment.

“They are a very hard group to engage in treatment. It is a highly, highly stigmatised condition where people don’t want to go for treatment.”

He said the consequences of gambling addiction for the person and their family is “absolutely horrific, and I am not saying that lightly”.

“When you’re talking about young men who have secretly stolen €100,000s and the news breaks within a family system, the effect can be devastating,” said Prof O’Gara.

In some cases, we have recidivism, where the family will bail the person out, sell various assets, and then it happens again. And it can be even worse in those instances.

“Past a certain point, we would be dealing with the criminal justice consequences of severe gambling. And there is usually a theft component.

“It tends to be around people having the ability to divert funds. There needs to be an awareness that this is a very serious illness.”

The ease with which one can access gambling on handheld devices is also playing a role, he said.

Prof O’Gara feels tackling gambling addiction is not being given the government priority it deserves.

The proposed Gambling Control Bill 2013, which would establish a gambling regulator and create a social fund to provide funding for treatment, could ultimately be the quickest and easiest way to help tackle the problem, Prof O’Gara believes.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said the government approved a number of proposals to update and modernise the Gambling Control Bill in January and that a working group is preparing its report for submission to government shortly.

However, John Purcell of Gambling Aware said lack of information on gambling prevalence needs to be addressed first.

“No one has ever done a study of the prevalence of problem gambling rates in Ireland. So we’re dealing with anecdotal evidence,” said Mr Purcell.

He said lack of clarity on the bill meant the industry was nervous about making voluntary donations to Gambling Aware, and that these had “fallen off a cliff” in 2018.

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