Opinion: the extent of harmful gambling in Ireland is unknown because there has been no in-depth prevalence study done in the country

By Crystal Fulton, UCD

The challenge for addiction counsellors is to assist people affected by harmful gambling, while maintaining an addiction service. Both tasks are significant. In the first national study of the social impact of gambling in Ireland, Playing Social Roulette: The Impact of Problem Gambling on Individuals and Society in Ireland, addiction counsellors were asked about the services they provide around harmful gambling and their views on the issue in Ireland.

However, the extent of harmful gambling in Ireland is unknown because there is no prevalence study in the country. This lack of information has a knock-on effect for understanding the need for services around this form of addiction. Some addiction counsellors in Ireland have offered their own assessment of the extent of gambling in the country, with, for example, one recently estimating a tripling of numbers of people requesting help with gambling addiction. The impact of harmful gambling is much wider, however, affecting families and friends of gamblers as well.

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What is the current state of the service?

The current focus on gambling harm in Ireland is on treatment. Addiction counsellors participating in Playing Social Roulette reported that they offer treatment to a diverse clientele spread across socio-economic groups and geographic regions. Treatment is largely centred on the needs of gamblers, with some services also targeting particular gender and age groups.

One in five participating addiction services stated that they relied solely on volunteer staff

Counselling services exist throughout the country, often providing support across a range of addictions with some focussed on harmful gambling. Few services are set up around the needs of families and friends affected by harmful gambling.

Few referral and information services exist in Ireland. The Irish Bookmakers Association provides funding to Dunlewey Addiction Services in Northern Ireland to function as a call centre for calls received throughout the island about harmful gambling and to redirect calls from the Republic of Ireland to selected service providers in the Republic. Recently, Problem Gambling Ireland opened as a referral service independent of the gambling industry is and located in the Republic of Ireland.  

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Addiction counsellors reported that funding was a significant issue. They believed their services were under-resourced; they wanted the government and the gambling industry to contribute toward this funding. While they reported that existing funding came variously from private and public sources, they identified no set funding model for provision of financial support to services. 

The financial need was reflected in their approach to maintaining a service. 20 percent of participating addiction services stated that they relied solely on volunteer staff. Additionally, they noted a range of strategies for keeping their services open, including payment for services and fundraising.  The perspective of participants parallels a recent news report, in which one addiction service in the country made a public plea for funding. 

What do addiction counsellors want?

Study participants called for government to acknowledge the extent of the gambling issues in the country and to take a leading role in protecting society. In addition to regulating the gambling industry and setting policies around gambling technologies and advertising to protect the vulnerable, participants wanted dedicated financial support for addiction services for gambling.

Another suggestion was a government-funded, four-tiered treatment model to provide levels of intervention. Participants also wanted funding to be timed around the needs of treatment centres. Currently, lags around funding provision place gambling addiction services in jeopardy. 

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Addiction counsellors identified several development areas for their services. The issue of training of addiction counsellors was repeatedly noted, with some offering in house training for colleagues and others calling for external parties to provide training. Preparing individuals and organisations to help people affected by harmful gambling is a significant issue, which raises questions about who should provide assistance to those affected by harmful gambling and how help might be best organised. 

Addiction counsellors did refer to working with agencies, such as Gamblers Anonymous, though there are many services which might offer a wider network of support and planning, including GPs and clinical staff. Greater co-ordination and collaboration among addiction and related services in the country would facilitate provision of independent and neutral services, as well as develop a community of practice. The views of addiction counsellors suggest there is still significant work to do in this area.

Dr Crystal Fulton is Associate Professor at the School of Information & Communication Studies at UCD. She's the principal investigator on the Playing Social Roulette: The Impact of Problem Gambling on Individuals and Society in Ireland research which has been funded by the Department of Justice & Equality and Irish Research Council with support from the Department of Social Protection

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ