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Strong links between gambling and suicide need to be considered in reform

Carol Bennett

20 Sept 2023

We have always known there was a strong link between gambling and suicide.

There were just too many stories from people, whose lives had been devastated by gambling, attempting to take their lives. Or too many stories from the families of those who did die by suicide due to the "cost" of gambling.

Of course, the cost of gambling is not just financial - it is physical and mental, it fuels domestic violence and family breakup and in extreme cases it leads to suicide.

New research undertaken by Federation University in collaboration with the Coroners Court of Victoria, examined the Victorian Suicide Register which revealed at least 184 suicides were directly related to gambling. There were another 17 gambling-attributed suicides by "affected others" such as family members.

The research took the latest available data which covered cases between 2009 and 2016. The fact we have to wait so long for this data and the failures of states across Australia to gather and make available better data is a major issue in itself.

While the research results concluded gambling-related suicides amounted to just over 4 per cent of total suicides in the state, the researchers believe the true number was inevitably much higher.

They cited the superior reporting methods used in tracking gambling-related suicide in Hong Kong where research shows as many as 20 per cent of all suicides were identified as related to gambling.

We have known gambling exacts an inordinate toll of misery, especially in poorer communities across Australia. It is the business model of the gambling industry to prey on those who can least afford what they lose gambling.

Even a parliamentary inquiry into online gambling heard evidence from the industry itself that they actively encourage those who are losing to gamble more while they seek to interrupt and stop those who are winning from playing on so as not to "distort the market".

Yet it beggars belief that governments in Australia have not done more to both identify and prevent gambling-related suicide. They have largely ignored this issue for so long. Most states weere instead more focused on the tax revenue it generated.

But it is clearer than ever that the costs of gambling, far, far outweigh the benefits to governments and the communities they serve.

It is not the case in other parts of the world. The UK government has just recognised gambling as a "related factor" in its new five-year strategy to reduce suicide rates.

Listed alongside domestic abuse and online safety, gambling has been highlighted by the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK as a 'new priority area'.

Australia National Suicide Prevention Strategy does not have gambling as such a priority.

There is an urgent need in Australia now to reframe gambling from a recreational activity to understanding it as a harmful product such as tobacco or alcohol. That is why the Alliance has joined with Suicide Prevention Australia and Financial Counselling Australia to demand a significant rethink of the nation's approach to gambling and finally treat it as a public health issue. We want to see the establishment of a federal-state taskforce charged with preventing gambling suicides.

The federal government must also fully implement the Murphy inquiry recommendations into online gambling, including a full gambling advertising ban phased over three years.

There also needs to be a national strategy for police and coroners to have access to a '"gambling data vault" to pick up gambling-related deaths and identify the true extent of gambling-related suicides.

We are also hopeful the royal commission into suicides among veterans and defence members will focus its attention on the impact of gambling in light of evidence that past and present personnel face higher-than-average rates of gambling problems. Gambling harm is an undeniable and key factor leading to veterans and defence members suicides and other mental health issues.

And this harm is not helped by the positioning of poker machines throughout Returned and Services Leagues (RSLs) - a place intended to provide comradeship and community support for veterans.

US research, which included one study involving more than 200,000 veterans, showed serving and past members of the defence forces suffered higher-than-average gambling harms and that of those with "pathological gambling problems", 40 per cent had attempted suicide.

While these are US studies where there is a different gambling landscape, the problem is likely to be far worse in Australia given we have a much higher concentration of poker machines as well as the highest rates of gambling and losses in the world.

It has taken us far too long to make the link between gambling and suicide. We have had ample anecdotal evidence of the link. Now with new research and the example of actions in other countries, we have no excuse.

A revamped national suicide prevention strategy must have a key pillar that looks at gambling-related harm.

Support is available for those who may be distressed. Phone Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; National Gambling Helpline 1800 858 858

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