Edition #16: August 2019

Illustration showing poker machine symbols – trees, four-leafed clovers, Q, J, 9 – and three black dog symbols, lining up in a column.
Illustration showing poker machine symbols – trees, four-leafed clovers, Q, J, 9 – and three black dog symbols, lining up in a column.
Illustration: Steven Moore

Finding a way out of the forest: mental health and gambling

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you confuse the tree for the whole forest. The latter is often the case for people who experience harm from their gambling; the tendency is to see their gambling as the sole cause of the harm they are experiencing.

However, apart from the fact that gambling harm occurs across a spectrum of losses of control and unintended consequences, it often doesn’t exist as a problem in isolation. This is especially true for people who experience severe harm from gambling.

The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation recently made a submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. It is common to find mental health issues among people at the severe end of the gambling harm spectrum. Apart from those with a psychologically diagnosed gambling disorder, a very high percentage of people at the severe end of harm have other diagnosed mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

It is common to find mental health issues among people at the severe end of the gambling harm spectrum.

In technical terms, these co-occurring conditions are called comorbidities. In other words, multiple issues that negatively affect wellbeing. For many people who experience gambling harm, a collection of comorbidities make up the forest in which they’re lost.

Gambling harm often has company

A 2014 survey of Victorians’ gambling activities found that 39 per cent of people whose gambling was severely out of control had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Almost 42 per cent had been diagnosed with depression.1 For those in the medium categories of gambling issues – a much greater number of people – the figures are still shocking, with one in five experiencing anxiety and almost one in four, depression. For Australia’s general population, the figures are one in seven and one in 16, respectively.2

Researchers have estimated that nearly 75 per cent of people seeking treatment for gambling issues have some form of psychological disorder. More than one in 10 suffers post-traumatic stress.3

Nearly 75 per cent of people seeking treatment for gambling issues have some form of psychological disorder.

It’s important to note that having a mental health issue does not of itself make someone more likely to gamble. In fact, the limited evidence we have suggests these people are less likely to gamble than the general population. However, when they do gamble, they are far more likely than the general population to experience harm.4

A study of clients attending a mental health service in Victoria found the number of people also experiencing uncontrolled gambling was almost eight times the rate of the general population.5 The combination of severe gambling harm with existing mental health issues can only be expected to compound the difficulties these people experience. The dents and blows to their wellbeing, their resilience, and their mental and physical health are highly likely to increase.

The picture this paints prompts a reconsideration of notions of gambling harm and the people experiencing it. We must acknowledge that, for many people experiencing harm from gambling, it is a burden on their wellbeing that accompanies others, often including poor mental health.

Collaborative responses to a complex issue

The assumption that people who choose to gamble are responsible for its effects on them is problematic. Most of us, most of the time, are not as clear-eyed, far-seeing and rational as we would prefer, and there are inherent risks and challenges associated with gambling. These include the effects from the products themselves, the context in which they are delivered, and the life situation and mental state of those doing the gambling. Thus, to blame someone for being a ‘problem gambler’, or not acting ‘responsibly’, is a profound simplification of the complex reasons that led them, at some point in their lives, to experience gambling harm.

The mental health evidence tells us that a great many of those who have experienced harm from gambling were already vulnerable. Their decision-making ability was under strain or compromised, even impaired. Moreover, gambling harm can affect mental health, including increasing all sorts of psychological distress.6

It is important that support services for people who seek help for a mental health concern are also alert to the presence of any gambling issues.

Consumers need protections because gambling products are risky. But with so many of those who experience severe gambling harm also experiencing mental health issues, these protections are even more vital.

Because of the high co-occurrence of gambling and mental health issues, it is important that support services for people who seek help for a mental health concern are also alert to the presence of any gambling issues. Likewise, identifying mental health issues in those seeking help for gambling will lead to better outcomes.

Download our submission:

Submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System (PDF – 259 KB)

1 Hare, S 2015, Study of gambling and health in Victoria, Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and the Department of Justice and Regulation, Melbourne, p.133.

2 Beyond Blue, Statistics, viewed 6 August 2019, www.beyondblue.org.au/media/statistics.

3 Dowling, N, Cowlishaw, S, Jackson, A, Merkouris, S, Francis, K & Christensen, D 2015, ‘Prevalence of psychiatric co-morbidity in treatment seeking problem gamblers: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49(6) 519–39.

4 Lubman, D, Manning, V, Dowling, N, Rodda, S, Lee, S, Garde, E, Merkouris, S & Volberg, R 2017, Problem gambling in people seeking treatment for mental illness, Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Melbourne, p.8.

5 Lubman, D, Manning, V, Dowling, N, Rodda, S, Lee, S, Garde, E, Merkouris, S & Volberg, R 2017, Problem gambling in people seeking treatment for mental illness, Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Melbourne, p.8.

6 Browne, M, Langham, E, Rawat, V, Greer, N, Li, E, Rose, J, Rockloff, M, Donaldson, P, Thorne, H, Goodwin, B, Bryden, G & Best, T 2016, Assessing gambling-related harm in Victoria: a public health perspective, Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Melbourne, pp. 71, 78.

Related articles

Posting guidelines

To ensure this page is friendly and welcoming for all visitors, we ask that you:

  • be respectful of others and their opinions
  • do not reveal any personal or sensitive information about others, including naming people who are affected by gambling problems
  • do not harass, abuse or threaten others
  • do not post comments that are likely to offend others, particularly in reference to an individual's race, age, gender, sexuality, political leaning, religion or disability
  • do not use obscene or offensive language
  • do not post defamatory comments
  • do not post repeat comments continuously
  • do not repeatedly post information which is factually inaccurate and may mislead others
  • do not promote anything that may constitute spam, such as commercial interests, solicitations, advertisements or endorsements of any non-governmental agency
  • protect your personal privacy by not including email addresses, phone numbers or home addresses.

Any comments that violate these terms will be deleted.