With Safer Gambling Week quickly approaching now is a good time to reflect on what that term – safer gambling – means, how we use it as an industry term, how those with Lived Experience see it and has the meaning of safer gambling shifted in the wake of soaring energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis.
As a term in everyday language, safer gambling doesn’t have much of a function outside gambling operators and some treatment services or support charities - in essence it is an industry term.
The answer to this is complex – gambling as a leisure activity is not itself unsafe – but without awareness of the possible risks associated with it, it can become unsafe for many people, especially those who may be in a vulnerable state already.
What do we mean by a vulnerable state? Like with any activity that offers a high degree of escapism, gambling to excess may become particularly attractive where other areas of a person’s life become difficult – this can be many things, like the breakdown of a relationship, workplace stress, or a change in financial capability. These vulnerabilities are not static, which means that people can be affected by different vulnerabilities indifferent ways at different times in their life. For gambling to be safer, players need to have some understanding of this – to understand their own vulnerabilities when they’re vulnerable, know what risks they are being exposed to, what tools are available to minimise these risks and the associated harms and how to access these tools.
A lot of the messaging that tries to make this happen comes from charities like us but more needs to come from the operators themselves by educating players on how to protect themselves before they are affected by serious harms. This is particularly important at the moment, when, with the cost-of-living crisis upon us, more and more people report that they’re looking towards gambling as a means of supplementing their income, rather than a leisure activity.
Recently a number of my colleagues have spoken at international events about issues such as financial vulnerability and affordability checks, focusing on the link between financial loss and gambling harms. That link is very real and important. Customers who are gambling more than they can afford need to be protected. But there are other harms, ones that are less immediately apparent, but can have lasting effects which can be even more significant to a person than financial loss.
One such harm is the time people realise they have lost. Many people in our Lived Experience community who have been affected by gambling harms look back on their time gambling and point to the family time they’ve missed, the friends they didn’t spend time with and have lost, the intimate relationships they neglected, and the work and personal development opportunities they missed. Another is in their mental and physical health, which may have deteriorated as the motivation to consider them was lost. There are many more ways in which gambling can become harmful, but it is important to emphasise that it is possible to recover from these if people seek and receive the necessary help.
Every day, our trained Peer Supporters use their Lived Experience of recovery to help others recover, and see them re-establish their relationships, rebuild their friendships and improve their mental and physical health by doing things that seem simple – making phone calls, planning visits, exercising, spending time outdoors or sourcing healthy meals which they’d stopped doing as the harm caused by gambling became severe. Our Peer Supporters work to rebuild the interest of those they’re supporting in such activities and then maintain their motivation to engage in them.
Education and good, concise and impactful messaging is key to ensuring people seek such help when they need it. Much work is going on to support this. Specific tools to help people once they’ve sought the help have been developed, but more work needs to be done on these. One barrier to recovery, for instance, that frequently comes up in our support work is self-exclusion is. Self-exclusion can be a difficult process, as for many affected by gambling harm it is the first step towards acknowledgement of a problem and placing a barrier between themselves and gambling services. We would encourage the industry to continue to refine schemes and ensure that the process not only provides a safety mechanism, but also respects the psychological and emotional challenges that can accompany self-excluding.
Similarly, both the messaging and implementation of safer gambling tools such as limit setting, taking breaks and information on spend vs win need to be customised to individual customers. Fortunately, technology is making this more and more possible. Most importantly, particularly in a period of uncertainty over new regulations and changes to compliance requirements the voices of Lived Experience need to be amplified and learnt from, to make these new regulations and compliance requirements as effective as they can be.