High stakes indeed: Gambling with lives

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Naomi Fryers examines the relationship between problem gambling and suicide in Australia.

A STUDY carried out at Flinders Medical Centre in 2006 found that 81.4 per cent of participants in a gambling addiction study displayed signs of suicidal ideation.

Reports in 2010 revealed that almost one in five suicidal patients seen by the Alfred Hospital’s emergency department was a problem gambler. A Lifeline spokesperson has confirmed to Independent Australia that compounding financial pressures often result in calls through to their services.

In 2013, a State Coroner’s report found that, over a decade, 128 Victorians committed suicide after losing their battle with gambling addiction.

Clearly, community-wide vulnerabilities are a cause for concern, particularly given that gambling, as an industry, is growing.

Seven Australians lose their lives to suicide each day — an average outweighing our national road toll. We also spend $20 billion dollars per year on gambling – a figure that increases each year – and is one of the nation’s largest revenue raisers.

Despite this, there has been limited research, or media coverage, on the relationship between problem gambling and suicide in Australia, hindering public discourse on potential reforms. It could be argued that, without a commitment from the government to actively investigate the matter, we may continue to count momentous and avoidable losses.

In November last year, the Federal Government released its mental health reform plans. One of the aims was to curb Australia’s suicide rate by tackling mental illness and depression. Around this time, Lifeline Australia chairperson, John Brogden, also called for Australia’s suicide rate to be declared a national emergency. However, while suicide statistics are firmly on the agenda, some of the underlying reasons for suicide, such as problem gambling, continue to go unaddressed.

The finding that 128 Victorians committed suicide after losing their battle with a gambling addiction may, in fact, be an underestimation of the problem, with some fatalities from the period still being investigated. In addition, coronial enquiries do not generally involve holistically addressing the underlying motives of a suicidal act, focusing instead on cause of death and ruling out suspicious circumstances. In order to address the causes of suicide and reduce the human cost, we must better examine the link between suicide and problem gambling.

Gambling is a growing industry and poor regulation processes may be perpetuating poor outcomes for problem gamblers.

Crown Casino, in particular, has attracted the ire of anti-gambling groups interested in seeing the industry independently investigated and reformed. It was reported back in 2013 that 127 intentional overdoses or poisonings had seen paramedics called out to attend the venue in less than three years. Crown Casino has declined an invitation to comment on this matter. At the time, the Department of Health also did not make a representative available for comment on possible reforms. 

Dr Mark Zirnsak is the co-chair of the Victoria Interchurch Gambling Taskforce (a position he shares with the Reverend Tim Costello). In an interview with Independent Australia, Dr Zirnsak stressed the need for restricted opening hours of gambling venues and a reduction of betting limits. He also envisages a requirement whereby staff in gambling venues must intervene when someone shows signs of problem gambling. While he acknowledged the current regulations on gambling venues, he argued that they were “not directed at reducing harm.

Dr Zirnsak laments that while most people believe gambling does more harm than good,

“’s generally not an issue that impacts how people vote.”

But not everyone agrees that a causal link between problem gambling and suicide is so straightforward. Dr Rene Pols, a psychiatrist from Flinders University in Adelaide, was quoted in an SBS report as saying that determining a direct causal link is difficult. He believes most problem gamblers have other mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

In the same report, another Flinders University psychiatrist, Dr Conrad Newman, agreed that establishing a causal link is complicated:

I think what we have difficulty determining at the end of the day, what's the last straw. And what's the last straw for one person might be different for another person. But I think, for most people who become suicidal, significant loss is one of the key factors in their life, and I think people who are problem gamblers lose a number of things.

While the sounds of gambling venues (including poker machines) may be strangely luring and melodic to some, the tragic toll of problem gambling related suicide has, for years, been met with a deafening silence. There has been limited intervention or inroads made in terms of reforms. Given that the industry continues to expand, we at Independent Australia believe the topic needs to be put firmly on the agenda. The lives of some of society’s most vulnerable are depending on it.

For help or information call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit

You can follow Naomi on Twitter @Fluro_Unicorn.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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