Edition #8: Early signs of harm from gambling

Aboriginal artwork with a flowchart drawing of a diagram with the word
Aboriginal artwork with a flowchart drawing of a diagram with the word
Artwork: Oliver Wise

Researching gambling in the Sunraysia Aboriginal community

Last year, just as the swollen Murray River burst its banks at Mildura, we began talking to people in the Sunraysia Aboriginal community about their experiences of gambling. It was a new conversation, initiated by Mallee District Aboriginal Services in partnership with La Trobe University, and supported by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

While many people had felt the impacts of gambling, both good and bad, over many years, including on friends and family, people told us again and again that it was not something much talked about in the community. Once they did start talking, though, like the surging Murray River, they didn’t want to stop.

'That's the only bit of enjoyment that I get'

People told us that the popularity of gambling is due to a desire to win money, in the context of low incomes, the accessibility and social centrality of gambling venues, people’s pressing need for respite from deep hardship, disinhibition caused by alcohol and drugs, and, finally, the fun and social opportunity gambling offers.

Overall, it was clear that gambling is an important way many people experience pleasure. People told us, ‘it’s my joy’, ‘that’s the only bit of enjoyment that I get’, ‘I love it’. Importantly, people’s accounts showed that gambling often provides a temporary respite from weighty problems, including ongoing grief and trauma, that are beyond the power of individuals to fix alone.

It was clear that gambling is an important way many people experience pleasure.

Two forms of gambling stood out: bingo and poker machines. People described bingo as ‘a gathering place’, ‘a place to yarn’, and as providing ‘a sense of belonging’. Bingo offers a controlled spend and the thrill of winning, as well as a space for community social life and a refuge from daily stress, including for many grandparents raising their grandchildren. One worker said that ‘apart from funerals, that’s pretty much where you get the most amount of Koori people together, socialising, having a laugh.’

However, bingo is not solely positive. Some people described family members prioritising bingo over everything else, including friends and family. Others thought bingo was like a ‘pathway drug’, as venues with poker machines often provide ‘free bingo’ as a way to attract new players to the machines. One young man described a family member who had not previously played poker machines: ‘That’s how my [relative] ended up playing the pokies from bingo. She was going to free bingo, and ended up playing the pokies, now she’s hooked’.

‘Apart from funerals, that’s pretty much where you get the most amount of Koori people together, socialising, having a laugh.’

Mallee District Aboriginal Services worker

While poker machines are more solitary than bingo, they also fill a need. People described playing the pokies as ‘time out’, ‘time alone’, ‘me time’, somewhere to ‘zone out’ or ‘ease the mind’, and relaxation away from stress, as well as a place where people left you alone.

When solace turns bad

Despite the pleasure and power of gambling, there was strong agreement among the people who talked to us that gambling harm, while little discussed, is common, corrosive and costly. People told us the harm includes poverty and financial insecurity; conflict, family violence and relationship breakdown; neglect of children; greater drug and alcohol use; addiction and deteriorating health; crime; loss of community; and stereotyping of Aboriginal people as gamblers.

There was strong agreement that gambling harm, while little discussed, is common, corrosive and costly.

The popularity of bingo and poker machines emerges in a particular context. As one worker eloquently put it, gambling can be ‘a temporary solution to a lifetime of heartache’. People told us that gambling, particularly on poker machines and bingo, promises solace, entertainment and hope of financial reward in the Sunraysia Aboriginal community. This is under conditions where many people have less access to money than the broader community, carry heavy responsibilities, live with deep pain, and do not have access to the resources they need to easily address the problems they and their family members face.

Gambling can be 'a temporary solution to a lifetime of heartache'.

Whether fleetingly or in an enduring way, gambling promises something people are looking for. It is doubly unjust, then, when the gambling products through which people seek pleasure, release and solace, in fact, make their situation worse.

How to take the benefits from gambling while managing the harm

Action is needed across a number of levels. Participants in this research articulated convincingly the need to:

  • open up community discussion about gambling
  • address people’s shame and isolation
  • conduct accessible, culturally appropriate community education
  • provide integrated services that can reach gamblers where they are
  • address the factors that push people towards gambling
  • place greater limits on gambling products and venues.

Floods in Murray River red gum country take their time to arrive. Sometimes the floods bring renewal, watering parched red gum forests and flushing toxic salt out to sea; sometimes they bring devastation, sweeping away crops and levees. For down-river towns, knowing the deluge is coming is not always the same as having the power to manage the impact.

Sunraysia Aboriginal community members have been doing their best, individually and as families, to take the good from gambling while managing the flood of harm. By making the harm, and benefits, of gambling visible and by articulating community suggestions for change, we hope this research will help the Aboriginal community manage gambling in Sunraysia.

You can access the full report, Gambling in the Sunraysia Aboriginal community: an exploratory study by Kathleen Maltzahn, Richard Vaughan, Tiffany Griffin, Darlene Thomas, Raelene Stephens, Mary Whiteside and Sarah MacLean, on the Mallee District Aboriginal Services website.

Mallee District Aboriginal Services provide a Gambler’s Help program as part of their Social and Emotional Wellbeing Service.

How to get help

If this article has caused you distress or you have concerns about your own or someone else’s gambling, you can call:

  • Gambler's Help for 24/7 telephone support on 1800 858 858
  • Gambler’s Help at Mallee District Aboriginal Services on (03) 5018 4102
  • Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, Family Counselling Service on (03) 9403 3300.

To find out more about getting help, visit: gamblershelp.com.au.

Kathleen Maltzahn
Kathleen Maltzahn

Kathleen Maltzahn is a research officer at La Trobe University, partnering with organisations including Mallee District Aboriginal Services to explore experiences of gambling in Aboriginal communities. She has previously worked extensively in community services, with a focus on combating violence, dispossession and exploitation.

Sarah McLean
Dr Sarah MacLean

Dr Sarah MacLean is a sociologist with extensive experience in conducting research that supports health and welfare policy development. She has a particular interest in conducting studies that involve hard-to-reach populations and which deal with sensitive issues including alcohol and drug use. Sarah is senior lecturer in the disciplines of social work and social policy at the School of Allied Health, La Trobe University.

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