Jack* had three major gambling lapses that resulted in a large debt to his family.

Jack and his partner Sally* were no longer communicating and were seriously considering ending their relationship. Jack attended one of Mission Australia’s gambling counselling services on his own for a couple of sessions and showed serious commitment to abstaining from gambling. Sally attended the next few sessions along with Jack.

Jack and Sally were able to resolve many misunderstandings through addressing concerns in these sessions. During one of their last sessions, our counsellor worked with the couple intensively on rebuilding their relationship. They have since come to sessions laughing together, and so much of the hostility that festered before has been resolved. Jack continues to attend sessions and is showing great signs of becoming a ‘non-gambler’. They are working on their differences and Jack has commenced a repayment plan to pay off his debt.

A 2008 Australian study found people with a gambling problem were nearly 20 times more likely to display severe psychological distress. They were also more than four times more likely to drink alcohol at harmful levels than people without a gambling problem.1 Yet many people don't seek help. 

As Jack’s story illustrates, the impact of problem gambling isn’t just felt by the gambler, but also by other people in their lives, including family and friends. The consequences can include financial losses, bankruptcy, homelessness and the breakdown of personal relationships.

Gambling counselling has the potential to support more than just the problem gambler. Mission Australia offers free face-to-face and telephone gambling counselling for anyone affected by problem gambling, including family, partners and friends, throughout different regions of Australia. Gambling counsellor Desiree Zeballos from our Gambling Counselling Service in the Illawarra region of NSW applies a holistic and individually tailored approach to each person she counsels.

“In terms of techniques I don’t believe ‘one size fits all’, so I am guided by each new person and their unique life journey,” Desiree explains.

From experience in service provision, we know that clients with gambling problems experience far-reaching negative consequences, including a range of complex and co-occurring mental and emotional health concerns. Through the process of counselling, Desiree uses techniques to unpack the underlying causes of gambling issues.

Problem gambling is a complex addiction and getting to the heart of why people do this can be a long process. In many cases there is underlying trauma and experience of abuse that can be carefully unwrapped, acknowledged, released and healed.

When working with clients, Desiree uses effective, solution-based models of therapy, which include harm minimisation strategies, motivational interviewing, and an element of fun too. Tools such as whiteboard brainstorming sessions, videos of people who have beaten their addiction and telling stories of successful recoveries all assist in the client’s therapeutic journey.

“I’ve even had clients shred fake money as an exercise to lay down new neural pathways. Replacing the previous well-worn gambling neural pathway with a new one that reinforces that putting money into a poker machine is as wasteful as shredding the money in a shredder.”

“One client who gambles a minimum of $1000 per session participated in the shredding exercise and halfway through she stopped and said, ‘This is a waste, use the rest for your next client’. We unpacked that realisation in the next counselling session.”

Resorting to gambling can be a way in which people attempt to cope with anxiety, depression or feelings of helplessness or guilt, however the cyclical nature of gambling also means that these experiences and feelings are continually reinforced through the act of gambling itself. The difficulties that come with a problematic level of gambling, having no money for necessities such as food, rent and bills as well as being at a high risk of losing family, friends, housing or work, can have a direct impact on a person’s health.

Gambling is largely ingrained in Australian culture and while many people who gamble do so responsibly and within their means, a large number of Australians develop gambling habits that can have a far-reaching impacts.

Desiree emphasises the value of a community-wide approach to addressing the issue of gambling, reassuring people that they are not alone in their experiences. Through the gambling counselling service, she has been able to “reduce stigma in the community by raising awareness, education the community and running workshops to educate community workers on how to screen for problem gambling”.

For more information about Mission Australia’s Gambling Counselling services, visit our Service Directory.

*Names and images changed to protect the identities of the people we help

Thomas SA & Jackson AC (2008) Risk and Protective Factors and Comorbidities in Problem Gambling. Report to beyondblue, Monash University and the University of Melbourne

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