Gambling is ingrained in Australian culture and while many people who gamble do so responsibly and within their means, gambling habits can have negative consequences on an individual’s relationships, mental wellbeing, productivity and more.

If you or someone you or know is struggling to overcome problem gambling, discover our guide to problem gambling counselling.

What is problem gambling?

Problem gambling is a complex addiction that involves a willingness to risk something of value. Individuals may not be entirely out of control but may struggle to moderate their urge to engage in traditional or online gambling such as; gaming machines/pokies, lotteries or scratch cards, sports betting, online investment trading, fantasy sports and more.

Wife looking sad with husband holding paper documents

Getting to the heart of why people engage in problem gambling 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.

Desiree Zeballos from our Gambling Counselling Service in NSW says gambling can be a way in which people attempt to cope with anxiety, depression or feelings of helplessness or guilt.

“The cyclical nature of gambling also means that these experiences and feelings are continually reinforced through the act of gambling itself,” explains Desiree.

Problem gambling is also a problem that affects a diverse group of people in our communities.

Although many of the current sports betting ads feature younger males, this is not the case, points out Desiree.

Excessive and problematic gambling impacts people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Desiree Zeballos, Gambling Counsellor

What are the effects of problem gambling?

The difficulties that come with a problematic level of gambling are far-reaching and detrimental.

Studies have found that 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

Some additional effects of problem gambling include:

  • Having no money for necessities such as food, rent and bills
  • Complex and co-occurring mental and emotional health concerns
  • Being at a high risk of losing family, friends, housing or work
  • Negative impact on a person’s health and wellbeing
  • Loss of productivity and motivation.

What happens in a problem gambling counselling session?

We asked gambling counsellor, Desiree Zeballos to share what goes on in a counselling session.

“I take a holistic and individually tailored approach to every person. I don’t believe one size fits all, so I am guided by each new person and their unique life journey,” says Desiree.

In the first session, building rapport and trust is a priority for counsellors. She offers a cup of coffee or tea to help people feel welcome and relaxed and takes the time to understand a client’s expectations and boundaries.

 Women wearing a Mission Australia t-shirt and smiling towards the camera.

“Our job is done if the client leaves feeling hopeful and much better about themselves.”

“It’s also important to address the individual’s most urgent need. In some instances, its homelessness or a pressing legal matter,” says Desiree. “It’s impossible to move forward if we don’t acknowledge or address the elephant in the room.”

When working with clients, Desiree uses effective, solution-based models of therapy, which includes harm-minimisation strategies, motivational interviewing, and an element of fun too.

“I’ve 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.”

Desiree explains that it’s rare however to understand the whole story with one counselling session.

“With any addictive behaviour, the client can feel deep self-loathing and shame. We work together to make sense of the situation they find themselves in and what good can now come out of it.” 

Due to the stigma associated with problem gambling, Desiree explains that it can take several sessions before an individual feels comfortable to explore the deeper issues. 

Our job is done if the client leaves feeling hopeful and much better about themselves.

Counselling about gambling problem

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 and 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 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.

The effects of problem gambling aren’t just felt by the individual, but it affects other people in their lives, including family and friends. The consequences can include financial losses, bankruptcy, homelessness and the breakdown of personal relationships.

If problem gambling is affecting you or a loved one, seek help today. 

Find a Mission Australia service near you or read more stories about financial wellbeing.

1Thomas SA & Jackson AC (2008) Risk and Protective Factors and Comorbidities in Problem Gambling. Report to beyondblue, Monash University and the University of Melbourne

Subscribe for the latest news

Related news and stories

Read about what we’ve been working on, our stance on important social issues and how you make a difference to vulnerable Australians' lives.

Our founding purpose - 'Inspired by Jesus Christ, Mission Australia exists to meet human need and to spread the knowledge of the love of God'