Breaking the stigma around problem gambling

October 16, 2023 8:50 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Caroline Ponseti — Communications Strategist , Invariant
October 16, 2023 8:50 PM
  • Caroline Ponseti — Communications Strategist , Invariant

Last week was one of the global gambling industry’s biggest events of the year. There was also another global event: World Mental Health Day. Thinking back on this year’s G2E, I was encouraged by how many times mental health came up over the course of the week.

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Mentioning depression or anxiety in a casual conversation gets a different reaction than it would have 20 years ago. We avoided talking about these topics for years but are now gradually breaking the stigma around mental health issues in part because we’re normalizing conversations around them.

The role of stigma is particularly relevant in how the gambling industry approaches the topic of problem gambling. Research shows that gambling disorder is one of the most stigmatized mental health issues but that the current public discourse around problem gambling reinforces negative attitudes and stereotypes. Mainstream media often focuses on extreme cases, emphasizing personal failures and financial ruin rather than treating gambling disorder as a legitimate mental health issue.

Unfortunately, the stigma around problem gambling has real implications for treatment and prevention efforts. For one, individuals who perceive higher levels of stigma around gambling addiction are less likely to seek help for their gambling problems. Problem gambling is a chronically underfunded issue, meaning those who do seek treatment might not be able to access it anyway. The taboo nature and the general misunderstanding of problem gambling could also hinder adequate resources in new gambling markets. Legislators may hesitate to proactively allocate funding for problem gambling prevention and treatment out of fear that doing so would imply that legalizing new forms of gambling would expose more people to potential addiction.

So what can we do about it?

Media campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues, including the U.K.’s Time to Change or Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaigns, have made a measurable difference in decreasing negative attitudes toward those with mental health conditions. In fact, studies have shown that as the stigma around mental health decreases, people become more knowledgeable about mental health conditions, recognize symptoms, and better understand available treatment options. The gambling industry can apply these learnings from mental health writ large to destigmatize problem gambling by continuing to make problem gambling a more regular part of the narrative around companies’ commitments to their patrons.

The industry is already making progress, as we saw from the increased company announcements and social media activity during Problem Gambling Awareness Month in March. Companies must continue to proactively talk about the realities of problem gambling and what they’re doing to address them through the rest of the year. This starts with simple phrasing. It’s important to normalize the phrase “problem gambling” rather than using “responsible gaming” as a catch-all for conversations around gambling harm. Proactively owning the issue helps create a level of authenticity essential in an industry where reputation is necessary for success. It also helps create an environment where people struggling with problem gambling feel more comfortable seeking help and support, particularly before their gambling problems escalate to a full-blown disorder.

Conversely, downplaying or ignoring the realities of problem gambling risks being perceived as indifferent to the well-being of patrons. This perceived indifference can lead to long-term damage of a company’s image and trust with regulators, who have already increased their scrutiny over how companies deal with gambling addiction in the past year. Furthermore, policymakers’ concerns about whether companies take problem gambling seriously could serve as a barrier to future gambling expansion, as some states see with igaming. Companies that own the issue can position themselves as responsible industry leaders and contribute to reducing a decades-long stigma that disservices both patrons and the gambling industry.

I personally experience depression and anxiety and talk openly about it because I want to show others experiencing mental health issues that they’re not alone. It’s another step forward in breaking the stigma around mental health.

We’ve hit a turning point where mental health is being taken more seriously, and the gambling industry can adapt these learnings to tackle gambling addiction. Most importantly, the industry can’t be afraid to talk about problem gambling. Giving problem gambling the airtime it deserves is an essential step toward destigmatizing the issue and paving the way for increased funding and effective, long-term solutions.