A few months ago, my wife and I went on a research trip to a couple of amusement arcades in Tramore. I wanted to get a feel for the experience of sitting at a 'one-armed bandit' for a while. Despite that fact that I grew up on the Meath Road in Bray (100 metres from the prom) and, later, moved to Lahinch in my teens, the gambling sections of the arcades had never held any appeal for me. I would play video games or hang out with my friends as they pumped their pocket-money into poker machines on wintry west-coast nights. While I developed many unhealthy habits in my teens, gambling wasn't one of them.
So, we gave ourselves a 20 quid limit each and set about playing some of the machines (poker and slots). As I came to my final 10 cent stake on one of the slot machines, five "7s" appeared before my eyes. I had won the princely sum of €75 (much to the disdain of the poor woman beside me). We promptly left the building and our 'free money' paid for dinner.
As an addiction counsellor, working with clients who have gambling problems, I always ask about a 'Big Win' that stands out in their minds. For some people it can be tens of thousands, for others it can be in the hundreds. For some, it is the time they turned 50 pence into £10 at the race-track as a young child, The 'Big Win' is important as it is often the 'evidence' (or 'logic') that continues to drive the person to gamble, even when they know, deep down, that they cannot gamble their way out of the financial (and/or emotional) hole they are in.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is considered to be one of the most effective treatment approaches for problem gambling, focuses, in part, on disputing irrational beliefs. So, for example, if a person was getting treatment for anxiety or panic attacks, and they had an intense fear of fainting in public places (this is very common), the therapist might explain that this is impossible as fainting is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, whereas the Fight or Flight response causes blood pressure to rise. Quite often, by empowering the person with the knowledge that fainting is not a realistic scenario, anxiety levels can be reduced.
Unfortunately, with gambling, the person usually has hard, indisputable evidence, that gambling their way out of difficulty is a viable option. They have done it (to some extent) in the past. They have clear memories of the 'Big Win' along with other wins and 'winning streaks'. The fact that it is extremely unlikely to play out that way, gets overridden by this 'evidence' - especially when a person is desperate, anxiety levels are high and their ability to think clearly is impaired (as it is for all of us in stressful situations). The 'Big Win' also gives that sweet hit of dopamine (the same neurotransmitter that is released when using cocaine). Just like with cocaine, and other drugs, a tolerance develops and you can find yourself needing to gamble more frequently and with larger amounts of money.
If we go back to my measly €75 jackpot on the one-arm bandit, it certainly isn't anything to write home about. However, it was a payout at odds of 750/1. I now have 'evidence', stored in my memory for all time, that it is possible for me to turn 10 cent into €75. 'Logically', this means that I have the ability to turn €1 into €750 or €10 into €7500 . . . and so on. If I were to combine that 'logic' with an emotionally aroused state (stress/anxiety), where I am less likely to be able to control my impulses and make rational decisions - along with a potentially addictive, dopamine-producing activity, like gambling - it's pretty easy to see how I might start thinking that this could be the answer to some (or all) of my problems.
Does this mean that the 'Big Win' will keep a person gambling problematically forever? Of course not. The reality is that a person with a gambling problem has, invariably, had many wins along the way. Unfortunately, one of the things that separates people with gambling problems from non-problematic gamblers, is the person's inability to walk away with their winnings. This needs to be the focus of the conversation - because this is where 'logic' goes out the window. When a person is chasing their losses, they have an overwhelming need to get their money back. Unfortunately, the same person will usually gamble away their winnings, because they see it as 'free money' or 'the bookie's money'. Usually, clients will have experienced countless incidents of this. I always ask clients, 'What are the chances that you would leave the bookies shop (or casino/arcade), if you won enough money to clear all of your debts?". The answer is consistently: 'Practically zero'. This is because a problem gambler is not addicted to winning money - they are addicted to the gambling experience (which only occasionally involves winning money) . Having money just allows the person more time to get that lovely dopamine hit and self-sooth from Life's problems.
If you find yourself chasing that 'Big Win' and the feelings that came with it, just remember that money is the least valuable thing you can gamble with. A gambling problem puts your mental/physical health and relationships at risk. If you are concerned about your gambling and the impact that it is having on your life, don't suffer in silence. Help is available.
Barry Grant, CEO, Problem Gambling Ireland
Gambling is a pastime which many Irish people enjoy. It is deeply ingrained in our culture. In fact, Ireland has the third-highest losses, per person, on gambling – in the world. While for the majority of people who gamble, it is a relatively harmless bit of fun, there are many who experience harm from gambling. Problem Gambling (Gambling Addiction) is estimated to affect up to 40,000 people in Ireland. For every person with a gambling problem, there are estimated to be a further 8-10 people affected, meaning that there could be up to 400,000 people in Ireland feeling the negative impact of gambling-related harm.
The types of harm a person with a gambling problem may experience are:
• Financial issues (debt)
• Relationship issues
• Mental Health issues (Anxiety, Depression, Stress)
• Deterioration in Physical Health
• Issues at college or work (loss of productivity, absenteeism, difficulty concentrating)
• Suicidal Thoughts
So, how can you tell if you (or a person you care about) are showing signs of problem gambling?
Recognising the problem in yourself:
If you answer ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you may be developing a gambling problem. Do you:
• gamble alone and often?
• continue gambling longer than you intended?
• spend more time on gambling than other favourite pastimes or interests?
• gamble every last euro you have?
• think about gambling every day?
• try to win back money you have lost with more gambling?
• find it difficult to stop yourself spending too much?
• lie to friends and family members about your gambling and how much you have spent or do you just not tell them about it?
• sometimes reach the point where you no longer enjoy gambling?
• feel depressed because of gambling?
• have trouble sleeping?
• feel that gambling is having a negative effect on other areas of your life, such as family and work?
If you are concerned about your gambling and want to make some changes, then these suggestions may be useful:
• Break the silence and talk to someone you trust, a counsellor or attend a Gamblers Anonymous or SMART Recovery meeting. Keeping a gambling problem secret only makes it harder to bring about change. Talking to someone about it can help reduce the stress of a gambling problem and help you to do something about it.
• Avoid high-risk situations. These include any situations which you know can lead to gambling in a harmful way, such as having your ATM or credit cards with you when gambling, gambling on your own or mixing alcohol with gambling. You may want to avoid risky situations such as talking about gambling, carrying large amounts of money or socialising close to gambling venues. If you have online accounts, shut them down and ask to be excluded from the service.
• Challenge your gambling thoughts. It’s difficult to cut down or stop gambling if you believe that you can win and will come out in front. Remember: nobody ever gambled their way out of their gambling problem.
• Prepare for gambling urges. Urges to gamble are common for people trying to cut down or stop. Preparing yourself can help you cope. Think of times or situations that are likely to trigger urges and have plans for alternative activities that can help distract you.
• Find alternatives to gambling. It’s important to replace gambling with activities that you find satisfying. Finding a range of alternatives can help, such as sports, being with family members and friends, hobbies, and relaxation exercises (e.g. yoga or meditation).
• Reward your progress. There is a lot of guilt and shame associated with having a gambling problem. Acknowledge any progress you’ve made and reward yourself with a non-gambling treat – a nice meal, a movie or something else you enjoy.
Recognising the problem in others:
Here are some signs you can look for if you’re worried about a family member, friend or fellow student. People with a gambling problem have a preoccupation with gambling and may:
• want to borrow money to gamble or to cover debts
• have changes in their sleeping and eating habits
• start to miss college, work or other regular commitments
• express suicidal thoughts
• sometimes celebrate their ‘good fortune’ by gambling more.
If you are concerned about another person’s gambling, there is a simple, 2 question screening tool, which is an indicator that the person would need to undergo a more thorough gambling addiction assessment:
Q1: Have you ever felt the need to bet more and more money?
Q2: Have you ever had to lie to people important to you about how much you gambled?
(Answering “Yes” to one or more of these questions, strongly indicates that further assessment is necessary.)
Helping a friend or family member
If you think a friend or family member has a gambling problem, try to show your concern without lecturing or criticising. Your comments may be met with defensiveness and denial. Don’t take this personally, but let the person know you care and explain how his or her gambling behaviour affects you. You may have to clear boundaries with the person. Don’t be manipulated into excusing, justifying, overlooking, enabling or participating in the person’s destructive behaviour.
If the person agrees that he or she has a problem, here are some tips:
• Help the person make contact with organisations that can help, such as those listed at the end of this article.
• Be supportive and encouraging of the person’s attempts toward change, however small.
• Expect that there may be steps backward (“slips”/relapses) as a normal part of the recovery process.
• Encourage activities that are not associated with gambling and try to support the person by limiting or stopping your own gambling.
• Become informed by finding out more about problem gambling.
Barry Grant has been awarded a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator award at
the ceremony on Tuesday, the 11th October. Barry Grant’s organisation, Problem Gambling Ireland
focusses on raising public awareness of gambling addiction as an escalating public health issue.
They provide online resources, pay-what-you-want counselling services and gambling-harm
prevention workshops. The prize consists of €30,000 in funding to expand and grow the business.
A further five organisations also received this funding and support in the Elevator Award category.
They were Sam Synnott and Judith Ashton from Buddy Bench Ireland, Alex Cooney and Cliona
Curley from Cyber Safe Ireland, Shane McKenna and Killian Redmond from Dabbledoo Music, Noelle
Daly and Stephen Cluskey from Mobility Mojo and Francis Cleary from Step Out Ireland.
Through this awards ceremony, three social entrepreneurs have each been awarded funding and
support worth €140,000. Lakers, A Lust for Life and Recreate were chosen for this highest level
Speaking about the award, Barry Grant said; ‘Winning a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Award
means a huge amount to me, personally, and to Problem Gambling Ireland, as an organisation. It
has shown me that there are experts in the field of social enterprise who believe we have the
capacity to make a positive impact on Irish society and to scale our service nationally.’
Over the last twelve years, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has invested over €6.7 million in social
entrepreneurs and 1,230 employment opportunities have been created in the process. This
programme is sponsored by Irish company DCC plc, who have been the flagship sponsor of the
Awards for the last six years and earlier this year pledged its commitment to Social Entrepreneurs
Ireland until 2019, continuing its financial support with a further €700,000 in funding over this
CEO of DCC Tommy Breen said “DCC is proud to be a long term sponsor of the Social Entrepreneurs
Ireland Elevator and Impact Award programmes. It is a great privilege to play a role in getting
behind Ireland’s brightest and most ambitious entrepreneurs working to have a positive impact on
Darren Ryan CEO of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland said “Social entrepreneurs are problem solvers.
Whenever the current system is too slow, inadequate or missing, a social entrepreneur will roll up
their sleeves and take action. The social entrepreneurs awarded today are all pioneering new
solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. With the ongoing commitment of DCC plc, we will
back these entrepreneurs to take risks and be brave in pursuing ideas to solve Ireland’s social
The awards ceremony, which took place in the Mansion House, Dublin, was hosted by Joan
Freeman, the founder of Pieta House, and John Evoy, the founder of the Irish Men’s Sheds
Association, who are both former recipients of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards.
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor, Founder.