Amongst the people who know most about the harm gambling can cause are close family members – the parents, partners, children, siblings and other relatives of those who are personally experiencing problem gambling. Yet in all the debate and discussion about gambling there has been an unfortunate tendency to neglect the family harm. The 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey included the question: In the last 12 months, has any close relative of yours (including partner) had a gambling problem? In that representative British sample, 3.8% answered that question in the affirmative, which is equivalent to over one and a half million people – and that was an adult survey so it excludes children under 16. As one commentator from the USA put it, family members of problem gamblers are ‘a group with no voice’.
What is it like to be a family member affected by problem gambling? One of the earliest clinical reports of problem gambling in the UK, from the late 1960s, quoted a wife who said, ‘we have had a monster living with our family – a monster in the shape of a fruit-machine’. One of the modern US classics of the problem gambling literature, published in 1985 and entitled When Luck Runs Out, had a chapter on compulsive gambling and the family which included the following statement: ‘It is the nature of emotional disorders that when one member of the family is afflicted, the effects are felt by all the others. There are few, however, in which the impact is felt with such severity as in the case of compulsive gambling’.
The small amount of relevant research carried out since then indicates that family members are affected in three main areas: financial, relationships, and health (both emotional and physical). The effects of financial loss is perhaps the big one. Those affected by a relative’s problem gambling talk of financial harms ranging from the pilfering of small amounts of money right through to the whole family being put at serious financial risk due to large losses and debts. Relationships between family members and their gambling relatives are often undermined by the secrecy of their relatives’ gambling, and by arguments, and worse, when the seriousness of the gambling becomes apparent. Loss of trust is usually a big factor.
Family members typically describe being on high alert, watching their relatives and trying to work out whether gambling has continued. This is illustrated by a quotation from a recent Canadian study of affected family members: ‘one respondent explained how she would start to panic whenever she heard her boyfriend say he was going out with the boys, because she knew a big loss usually followed. Thus, a few words out of a partner’s mouth can trigger a panic response in the other spouse’. Being highly stressed, family members are themselves at heightened risk of mental and physical health difficulties, particularly anxiety and depression.
Children may be particularly vulnerable. In the few studies carried out, children have often reported being caught in the middle of family tensions, taking on the role of peacemaker, often experiencing disappointment due to broken promises, feeling sad, hurt, angry, depressed, confused and ashamed, even taking the blame for family difficulties stemming from the problem gambling.
There are good reasons for including family members in treatment. They are closer to the problem and more motivated to help than anyone else. They also often need help in their own right. They may feel that they are alone in experiencing what they are going through. They are likely to lack information about gambling and problem gambling. There is no guidance readily available about how best to cope. They may not know where to get the support they need.
What then should society do for family members affected by problem gambling? In this respect at least the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee which considered how the 2005 Gambling Act had been working (The Gambling Act 2005: A Bet Worth Taking? July 2012, First Report of Session 2012-13, Volume 1) had something welcome to say (see this website for criticism of how the report dealt with FOBTs). To its credit it did recognise, albeit briefly, that relatives can be harmed by problem gambling, and it recommended that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ‘develop a public information campaign outside of gambling premises to highlight sources of help for problem gamblers and their relatives’. As the report says, ‘An information campaign, aimed at the relatives of problem gamblers, could lead to more people seeking help because relatives of problem gamblers may not enter gambling venues and see the information provided there’ (para 77, p. 26). Of course much more is needed than just information, although that would be a good start. Gambling Watch UK calls on the Government to respond to the needs of the million or two adults and children in Britain who are adversely affected by the problem gambling of someone in the family.
Cousins, J., Velleman, R. and Orford, J. The effects of problem gambling on family members. In Bowden-Jones, H. and George S. (eds.), A Clinician’s Guide to Working with Problem Gamblers. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists (to appear later in 2013).
Custer, R. and Milt, H. (1985). When Luck Runs out: Help for Compulsive Gamblers and Their Families. New York: Facts on File.
Darbyshire, P., Oster, C. and Carrig, H. (2001) Children of parent(s) who have a gambling problem: a review of the literature and commentary on research approaches. Health and Social Care in the Community, 9, 185-193.
Kalischuk, R. G., Nowatzki, N., Cardwell, K., Klien, K. and Solowoniuk, J. (2006). Problem gambling and its impact on families: a literature review. International Gambling Studies, 6, 31-60.
Tepperman, L. (2009). Betting Their Lives: The Close Relations of Problem Gamblers. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press.
Valentine, G. and Hughes, K. (2010). Ripples in a pond: disclosure to, and management of, problem Internet gambling with/in the family. Community, Work and Family, 13, 273-90.