Senate debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020


Gambling, Mental Health

5:50 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak about the impacts of gambling and the harm caused to people who gamble dangerously. This is an issue that we must be tackling and talking about at this time as clubs, pubs and other gambling venues begin to reopen as we enter the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gambling fundamentally is a public health issue, from low-risk gamblers to those defined as problem gamblers, although I prefer the term 'people who are harmed by gambling'. The impact and harms of gambling extend throughout their lives. From a mental health perspective, those who gamble dangerously are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders. Research conducted by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation identified that 39 per cent of Victorians with harmful gambling behaviour also have a diagnosed mental illness. They estimate that just over half of low-risk gamblers in Victoria have some form of emotional or psychological impact on their life as a result of their gambling behaviour. Over 40 per cent of defined 'problem gamblers' suffer from depression, and nearly one-third of problem gamblers experience suicidal ideation. According to the foundation, the estimated financial cost of the emotional and psychological harm to people with problematic gambling behaviour is about $1.6 billion. It is also estimated that gambling accounts for over 20 per cent of the Victorian mental health sector's total annual costs.

These figures clearly demonstrate that harmful mental health impacts of gambling are rife. However, like many mental health issues, stigma prevents people talking openly about their gambling behaviours and the impact they have on their lives. In a 2019 article by The Guardian Australia, Ian shared how his gambling behaviour left him homeless and living on the streets when his relationship broke down due to the financial strain caused by his addiction. After leaving his family home his depression significantly worsened and his gambling behaviour spiralled. He tallied more than $100,000 in credit card debt in 2007, and by 2010 had reached more than $1 million in losses to the pokies. He said: 'I started to have panic attacks, which I’d never had before. My depression was severe.' Ian had suicidal thoughts and made three attempts on his life before seeking help in 2014. When he did seek help, many of the counsellors he saw failed to acknowledge his gambling addiction as the root cause of his mental ill-health.

There is growing literature on the impacts of harmful gambling behaviour on mental health and, in particular, on its links to suicide and suicidal ideation. A 2018 study by Lund University in Sweden found a 15-fold increase in suicide mortality for people experiencing issues with their gambling. The same study identified that 51 per cent of those with harmful gambling behaviour were suffering from depression, 60 per cent from anxiety and 41 per cent from substance use disorders.

Despite this link, there is a lack of coronial data in Australia to link suicidal mortality with problem gambling. It is simply not something we are looking for. The Coroners Court of Victoria released a review of coronial data in 2012 to explicitly identify gambling related suicides. From January 2000 to December 2012 there were 128 gambling related suicides, including two suicides of people adversely affected by their partner's gambling behaviour. In two cases men with significant gambling issues murdered their female partners before they killed themselves. The review also identified that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder had a higher risk of developing harmful gambling behaviour and were more likely to gamble long-term or across their entire lifetime. The Victorian coroner's review identifies a clear link between suicide and harmful gambling behaviour, but the data is most likely incomplete as there are no formal requirements to identify gambling behaviour when someone takes their own life. Many families are ashamed or do not want to shine a light on their family member's gambling behaviour and therefore request that this information not be disclosed. Without proper data collection that is readily available, it is difficult for policymakers to implement measures to effect positive change. Statistically, we are in the dark on this issue, but some estimates suggest that up to 400 people a year in Australia take their life as a result of their gambling behaviour. Can I just take a small moment here to say: if my comments are triggering anyone listening, I advise people to please seek support and contact Lifeline or one of the other helplines.

It is time for us to consider this a public health issue and take appropriate actions. This is more important than ever before. We are coming out of a pandemic, which has increased the daily stresses in households immensely. Many families are suffering financially as a result of job losses, and pubs and clubs and other pokie venues are opening in many states. They try their best to attract people to their venues using shining lights and the sounds of electronic gaming machines. There is a great risk that further harm will be done through this reopening. Despite Australia accounting for less than 0.5 per cent of the world's population, we have 20 per cent of the world's slot machines. The closure of pokie venues throughout the pandemic provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those harmed by gambling to pause and reset and put a halt on their gambling behaviours. We must support those people now. There are a large number of them that do not want to go back to gambling, but they urgently need support. We are seeing red flags already, with recent figures showing that an average of 11 per cent of superannuation that was withdrawn early during the pandemic is being spent on gambling, and we know that some people have made a switch to online wagering.

It is vital that the government lead the way here and work with the states and territories to provide the support services that are needed to help people end their gambling addiction for good. We should also be looking at further reforms. We need to start framing gambling harm as a public health issue. The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation argues that the absence of gambling from public and mental health frameworks means that health professionals, GPs and mental health practitioners are less likely to identify and respond to patients' underlying gambling problems. We need to implement a $1-bet process on pokies. This has been recommended by campaigners, public health experts and the Productivity Commission in their 2010 report. With the closure of pokie venues, we saw many people moving to online gambling spaces, which are poorly regulated. We need to expedite the development of the National Self-Exclusion Register, allowing people to ban themselves from all online wagering sites and apps. And when we do that we need to enforce it, because that helps people on the register. We need a national and uniform regulatory system, and we need to address the issue of corporate influence in government, through ending political donations and bringing in political donations reform. It is simply not appropriate for government to be influenced by people who are deliberately trying to attract gamblers.

There is so much more that the federal government could be doing to minimise the harms associated with dangerous gambling. I urge the government to use the COVID recovery period to take more affirmative action in the form of gambling policies and regulations. Don't simply blame the states and territories. There is much the federal government can do. It's absolutely urgent, and people want the support. As we come out of the COVID period and move into recovery, this is a golden opportunity to make once-in-a-lifetime reforms.

Senate adjourned at 18:00