Don’t gamble your life away on Cheltenham

In the 1980s, TD Tony Gregory warned about an impending heroin epidemic. We didn’t listen. We must act on similar fears over gambling addiction, writes John Byrne.

Don’t gamble your life away on Cheltenham

A festival is defined as ‘a special time of rejoicing or feasting’. It is not surprising then, that the Cheltenham Festival conjures up images of leisure and recreation for most people.

For family members of people with a gambling addiction, though, this week will be incredibly difficult.

It will be a reminder of the farm or business that they have lost, the credit card debt, the reason their mortgage is in arrears or the times that they could not afford to feed their children because the person with the addiction had spent an entire week’s wages on one night in the bookmakers or online gambling.

For those people, this week will feel like a lifetime.

Addiction is the term used to describe a cycle of compulsive, out-of-control behaviour that is damaging to the person’s physical or mental health (or to their general situation in life).

When we use this definition, then practically anything can be addictive, though the most common behaviours that cause problems for people involve alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or sex.

Sometimes people think that they do not have an addiction because they can abstain from the behaviour for a period of time. That is not necessarily so.

All across Ireland, there are people who abstain from drinking alcohol from January to St Patrick ’s Day, in order to convince themselves that they do not have a problem, then they drink problematically for the rest of the year.

In assessing addiction, it not necessarily how often the person engages in the behaviour or the extent to which they do it that is important.

It is their relationship to the behaviour and why they do it.

People with addictive tendencies will typically use their addictive behaviour as a coping strategy or means of escaping difficult life situations.

Anybody can develop an addiction, but if we were to identify a person who is particularly susceptible, it would be somebody who struggles to cope with the challenges of life.

In the early 1980s, Independent TD Tony Gregory said Ireland’s disadvantaged communities were about to be engulfed in a heroin epidemic.

We virtually ignored him, and we have been trying to fix the problem ever since.

Most people working in addiction treatment today will agree that the next significant social problem to hit Ireland is gambling addiction, and we should pay attention to it now because, unlike heroin use, gambling crosses all social boundaries and its consequences are catastrophic for both the individuals concerned and their families.

In recent years, we have normalised gambling in our culture to the point where it is actively advertised and promoted as just a bit of fun.

Our national broadcaster announces the outcome of the midweek lottery draw on Thursday morning news broadcasts.

Online bookmakers offer free bets if you download a gambling application to your phone.

Our post offices and shops carry advertisements encouraging us to buy lottery tickets and scratch cards with the suggestion that ‘it could be you’ who gets to buy an island all for yourself, or spin a wheel where you could win half a million euro, and all you have to do is buy a ticket.

The problem is, when the lottery people say ‘it could be you’, they do not mention that it could also be you that loses the farm or business and/or your family, because of the addiction that you did not know you had until you started gambling.

While the national lottery has played a part in the normalising of gambling in our culture, the problems it creates are miniscule in comparison to those caused by horse racing, casinos, and online gambling.

I recently met a man who lost €200,000 in two years playing online roulette, and heard of another who lost €30,000 in two hours’ online gambling.

This industry is virtually without regulation and despite the fact that 7% of people who engage in the activity are at risk of developing an addiction difficulty, the closest thing we have to a health warning is the occasional suggestion that people should ‘play’ responsibly.

Even the warning reinforces the suggestion that the gambling is a play-based activity.

I am not suggesting that we should not have horse racing, casinos, or lotteries, but their business should be conducted ethically.

It should warn people of the risks of engaging in gambling, support them to identify when they are slipping into addictive process, and redirect customers in difficulty to specialist counsellors or addiction treatment centres.

The signs and symptoms of gambling addiction include the following:

  • Preoccupation with gambling. Thinking about it more often, and finding more ways to gamble across the day/week;
  • Beginning to feel shame and guilt related to gambling, but doing it anyway;
  • Withdrawing from relationships with family or friends to engage in gambling;
  • Hiding your gambling from family or friends;
  • Spending more than you intend to, or can afford, on gambling;
  • Chasing/trying to regain losses by gambling more;
  • Mood swings/tension/stress/unhappiness/depression;
  • Spending money that is not yours on gambling;
  • Being unable to stop gambling despite your best efforts

Individuals experiencing these symptoms should contact an addiction treatment facility such as the Rutland Centre, Tabor House, Aiseiri, or Cuan Mhuire.

Some services, such as Cuan Mhuire, will provide support to people with medical cards, while others, such as the Rutland Centre, require the individual to have healthcare insurance, or to pay privately in order to access services.

All of them however, will be happy to provide advice and guidance free of charge.

Horses and horse racing are part of our culture and for the vast majority of people gambling is a thoroughly enjoyable activity that causes no problems whatsoever.

For some people, though, it is a path to crisis and chaos and we all have some responsibility to help those people to regain control of their lives.

After all, we are not just an economy, we are a society.

John Byrne is a lecturer in social care practice at the Waterford Institute of Technology and a practising psychotherapist

Helplines 

Rutland Centre: 01 4946358

Tabor House: 046 9077909

Aiseiri: 053 9141818

Cuan Mhuire national gambling helpline: 1800 753753

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