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'Not fit for purpose': Problem gambling supports 'lumped in' with alcohol and drug addiction services

When established, the gambling regulator will set up a “social fund” to help provide problem gambling treatment.

THE HEADLINE FIGURE from a report published last week commissioned by the Gambling Awareness Trust was that there are around 55,000 problem gamblers in Ireland. 

For the last number of years, there has been a dearth of substantive data in this area in this country and psychiatrists and counsellors have consistently said that that it will be important to fully understand the scale of the problem in Ireland before it can be comprehensively tackled.

Some estimates say the number of problem gamblers in Ireland could be far higher.

However, one area that was also highlighted in the report is how far behind Ireland is in terms of treating people with severe gambling problems compared to other countries. 

And, when the government finally enacts landmark gambling legislation, the treatment of gambling issues should be at the forefront of their efforts according to campaigners.

The report said: “HSE service provision is not specialised but part of a general ‘toolkit’ for managing drug and alcohol addiction. Regional discrepancies characterise the public system and make it difficult for gamblers experiencing problems to access services in their areas.

Private services exist but are expensive. Screening for gambling addiction is virtually non-existent and makes it difficult to interdict those at risk of developing significant problems with harmful gambling. 

The report also said there is no “dedicated treatment pathway” for GPs to refer on problem gamblers, and such individuals are “lumped in” with services for those with drug and/or alcohol problems. 

It added: “Relative to the scale of accelerated patterns of harmful gambling in Ireland, this system is not fit for purpose.”

In lieu of such formal services from the HSE, a number of charities and privately-owned providers take up the slack when it comes to offering supports for problem gambling and gambling addiction. 

The Gambling Awareness Trust – which is funded through contributions by the gambling industry itself – provides financial support to a number of providers in this area to offer phone and in-person counselling services along with other supports. 

Last year, for example, it helped to fund a residential treatment service for 92 people through the Cuan Mhuire service.

Its CEO Pam Bergin told The Journal: “We get a bad rap because we’re funded by the industry. The industry has nothing to do with our day-to-day operations. We commissioned this report to try to add the literature there is on the scale of gambling harm in this country.

Nothing in it really blew us away. But it is fairly stark that there’s such a huge problem in this country that’s not being tackled head on. We’re so far behind in terms of regulation that something has to be done. But I’m fairly confident now that Minister Browne will bring in a regulator.

Last week, Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne briefed Cabinet on the progress being made to establish a gambling regulator.

Campaigners have long said the industry cannot be allowed to self-regulate, and that Ireland should introduce legislation to regulate an industry that has seen revenues skyrocket in recent decades.

As part of gambling reforms, a social fund will be established and funded through the regulator and by the gambling industry to address gambling addiction. 

The Department of Justice said this social fund will support research, information campaigns and treatment by health care professionals. 

Bergin said that once those funds begin to come through to offer formalised and dedicated problem gambling supports, there are plenty of models that can be adopted from abroad that Ireland could follow. 

“All our peer countries in the EU have some form of supports for this,” she said. “In the UK recently, a number of NHS gambling clinics have opened up in the likes of London and cities in the north of England. 

“Apparently, it’s working really well. It’s free and it’s a specific service in this area. Something like that would be excellent here. In Ireland, it’d be important we get that geographic spread because the problem is everywhere.”

The calls from this Bergin and the Gambling Awareness Trust for regulation and funding for treatment services have been echoed by others working in the area, including psychiatrists, charities such as Extern Problem Gambling and politicians. 

Speaking to The Journal last month on behalf of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, consultant addictions psychiatrist Professor Colin O’Gara said that issue of problem gambling has “reached a point of no return”. 

“There has to be something done about this, and soon,” he said.

In the wake of the pandemic, Professor O’Gara said it’ll be very important to tackle the “epidemic” of problem gambling that is affecting Irish society, particularly its young men. 

“A lot of people are being harmed,” he said. “It’s a stigma and one of the worst stigmas out there. It’s such a shame. Because it’s a medical illness like any others. A huge amount of funding needs to go towards education, and towards awareness. 

“When somebody falls foul of this, it’s not their fault. They need to understand that. We need to ensure they get the help they need.”

The fact that many who seek help through their GPs and HSE services are referred to pathways for those with alcohol or drug issues “heightens the stigma” for those with gambling addiction, according to Bergin, and this is something that needs to change. 

“For every problem gambler, there are six others directly affected,” she said. “It’s friends and families that this impacts, not just the individual. The State aren’t providing these services. But people shouldn’t be left thinking there are no supports there to help them because there are. There are places to go. If you’ve a problem with this, you can get help.”

If you need help with gambling addiction, get in touch with Gamblers Anonymous via one of their regional contacts, Problem Gambling Ireland on 089 241 5401 or other services listed here.

For those in need of mental health support, help is available via:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

A list of HSE and HSE-funded services can be found here

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