The Hidden Addiction

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Anything can be an addiction – regardless if the substance or activity is legal or not. Gambling addiction has been on the rise, but lack of awareness on this addiction leads people to seek help only when they have reached rock bottom.

Mel McElhatton speaks with the Chairperson of the Responsible Gaming Foundation, Hon. Silvio Schembri, to find out more about the Foundation and gambling addiction.

Why was the Responsible Gaming Foundation set up?

The requirement for an independent Foundation emerged following the debate in Parliament on the amendments of the Lotteries and Other Games Act (Cap.438 of the Laws of Malta), to introduce regulations governing land-based gaming parlours. The Government and Opposition agreed on the establishment of a fund to promote responsible gaming and initiatives/studies in relation to responsible gaming measures and actions. The mission of the RGF is to create a wider awareness of the extent, possible causes and consequences of problem gaming in Malta with a view to preventing it and to provide the necessary support and advice to problem gamblers and their dependents in their recovery efforts.

Could you give us an overview of the services provided?

The Responsible Gaming Foundation provides the following different services:

Education Campaign

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The educational campaign runs in all primary schools around Malta and Gozo, targeting year four students. The main aim of this campaign is to raise awareness among school children about the time they spend on social games, which have the potential to lead to gambling problems in the future. The mascot for this campaign is Chippy and this campaign aims to target more than one hundred classes which translate to around two thousand students.

Corporate Social Responsibility Programme

This programme aims to give something back to society with the money the foundation collects from the gaming industry in Malta. The CSRP has an allocated budget of €150,000 available to organisations who would like to embark on a project where the main aim is to undertake activities alternative to gambling.

RGF Call Centre

The Responsible Gaming Foundation started to operate the National Gambling Helpline 1777. RGF felt the need to launch this helpline because from research gathered it was clear that there was lack of education with regards to problematic gambling. Many times, the issue of problematic gambling or gambling addiction is given the status of a taboo or stigma within the community. Therefore, victims of this dependency together with their families may find it hard to talk about their problems with someone who is fully understanding and non-judgemental. The 1777 Helpline offers the space for people who are going through life problems related to gambling can be given the support and guidance needed. Callers are emotionally supported and according to the assessments carried out, the callers would be advised to refer themselves to particular programmes in order to help them out in the long-term. The fact that the helpline is anonymous, gives encouragement to those people who are suffering in silence, are hesitant to call for help and prefer to remain anonymous.

The majority of University students are in their early 20s, why would that cohort also be interested in the Foundation?

Taking into consideration that we are all living and growing up in a highly technological world, we have to be very cautious not to get hooked in this evolving world mainly featured with different and easily accessible applications such as: online games, Facebook or online gambling. Everyone is aware that being a student is very stressful and stress may be a contributory factor for people to start experimenting. Thus, emphasis on using gaming/gambling activities responsibly is particularly important. Students may utilise gambling as a means of alienation which will help them to de-stress, detach from the outside busy life whilst at the same time, provide them with the thrills and excitement they need. Introverts or individuals who do not feel that they fit into a particular group, or may be passing from some personal difficulties, may find it easier to hide behind a screen and occupy themselves through gambling. If a person starts this activity with the wrong purposes, they are at a higher risk to get carried away. Sammut (2010), in his dissertation confirmed that the prevalence of problem gambling in the University population is somewhat high, and Internet gamblers are at a greater risk of developing gambling problems.

What are the common signs of problematic gambling or of a gambling addiction?

Problematic gambling may lead to a dependency if certain symptoms mentioned below continue to persist. Often, the problematic gambler may have difficulty to recognise certain symptoms, yet the people close to the addict may be in a better position to observe certain drastic behavioural changes. The following are the different areas which irresponsible gambling may negatively influence:

a. Personal level: The persons closest to the problematic gambler will realise that the priorities of the addict have changed, as well as their lifestyle and moods. In fact, often the problematic gambler will become more anxious and nervous in his/her daily life.

b. Physical level: Due to the high levels of stress that gambling brings on the problematic gambler, there may be health issues which would be a direct consequence of stress.

c. Social level: The problematic gambler may find other recreational activities boring and not entertaining. It will become obvious to the people close to the addict that their only entertainment would be related to gambling.

d. Emotional level: A problematic gambler may suffer from mood swings, they would also be susceptible of carrying out actions that they might have never thought of doing such as: stealing or being aggressive amongst others.

e. Mental level: Stress may bring about or trigger mental health difficulties such depression, suicidal thoughts and obsessive thoughts. In fact, the World Health Organisation has classified gambling addiction as an illness and it has also been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

If I know someone with a gambling problem, what should I do?

First of all, it is important that these people do not receive additional judgments for their behaviour. One should show complete understanding towards the victim. It is important that we distinguish between approving and showing understanding. It is a misconception that many find difficult to understand. Victims of this dependency, should be encouraged to seek help as this is a problem that can be very well be aided by professionals. Such help is available both for the gamblers as well as to their families.

Does the Foundation have any activities or campaigns planned for this year?

We will be extending our free Helpline from twelve hours a day to twenty four hours a day. In addition to this, we are organising two training sessions for students of the Faculty of Social Wellbeing in order to give some insight to future social workers on how to deal with clients which have a gambling addiction. We are also planning on offering university scholarships in the field of social wellbeing. Last and not least, the RGF is working on establishing a rehabilitation centre for problematic gamblers, gambling addicts and their families, in order to help them overcome gambling issues and other issues brought about by gambling.

Written by

Mel McElhatton

Mel McElhatton

Melissa McElhatton who has recently graduated with a BA (hons) in Social Work started out with Insite as a writer, then as CEO, and following as Social Policy Associate. She is also currently President of Gender Equality Malta (GEM).

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