Problem gamblers seek help in large numbers after Covid lockdowns

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A lucky dip at a school fair seems like a bit of harmless fun, but for David, it was the start of decades of addiction and shame.

The 53-year-old, from regional Queensland, said he was only 10 years old when he started to display the behaviours of a problem gambler.

“I was told at the fete that the boys’ lucky dip had one good prize and was warned not to spend all my money,” he said.

“I had as many goes as my money would allow.”

It was a pattern that repeated itself through David’s life and at one point, led to his family kicking him out of their home.

Spike in demand

While gambling addiction can occur at any time, the pandemic has led to a huge spike in demand at Queensland’s service.  

“After the lockdown we saw a big uptake in online and phone counselling and my books are completely full,” said the service’s Susan Rounsevell.

“We expect there will be more problems now that COVID payments have reduced, as people get used to that level of income.”

“But gambling in itself is not the problem, it’s a symptom of another issue and is being used as a coping mechanism.”

Causing chaos

For David, gambling was a form of escape.

As a young adult, he would drive hundreds of kilometres to indulge in his first love – casino games.

“It wasn’t uncommon for me to get paid on Thursday and then after work I would drive to Broadbeach and gamble,” he said.

“I tried to be smart and only take half my money, but I’d often return home to get the rest of my money and then drive back.”

He said he did whatever he needed to do in order to continue gambling.

“I thought it was a financial issue, so I held down three jobs and worked 80-plus hours a week.

“But the more money I got, the more I gambled.”

David said one of his lowest points came when his youngest sister found out he’d committed fraud against her, using her credit card to access cash.

“My family said we love you enough to no longer have you in our lives,” he said.

“It’s not a spectator sport — family, friends, employers all get to play … the ability to cause great harm is high.”

When gambling goes too far

Ms Rounsevell said when gambling started to affect relationships, work and finances, it became a problem.

“There are free services like ours, which are funded by the state government to help people address the issue in a holistic way,” she said.

“It’s about emotional help, financial help … behaviours are part of who you are and it takes a long time to learn new ways of being.”

Ms Rounsevell is also concerned that young people are normalising gambling.

“A lot of games adolescents play include prize boxes and loot bags and encourage them to take a chance,” she said..

“We are grooming that cohort for problematic gambling.”

‘Telling so many lies’

David said being a “problem gambler in action” was incredibly tiring.

“You’re juggling so many balls in the air and telling so many lies.”

Part of the challenge he faced in seeking help was a deep sense of shame.

“It (problem gambling) is a very misunderstood thing,” he said.

“If someone has an alcohol problem, people will have a range of suggestions to help.

“But if you say it’s a gambling problem, most people say stop being greedy and stop being weak.

“People will pay off a mortgage quicker than I will pay off my gambling debt.”

Advice from a problem gambler

Despite his life once being dominated by the impacts of problem gambling, David said he didn’t believe tighter regulation was needed.

“Most people can gamble responsibly, I’m just not one of them,” he said.

“I have a deep acceptance of about it because no-one ever forced me to do anything, I made all those decisions.”

David said he had spent a lot of time reflecting on his addiction, and his decision to abstain from gambling for more than two decades.

“I would say to my 20-year-old self, you don’t have to needlessly suffer any more … there are many ways to get help.”

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