Ian Butler 11 September 2019

Tackling youth gambling

In June this year, the NHS announced plans for the first dedicated gambling addiction service for young people. This highlights a problem of young people and their gambling habits which has resulted in addiction, mental health issues and even the risk of suicide.

Announcing the clinic, the chief executive of NHS England said: ‘The links between problem gambling and stress, depression and mental health problems are growing and there are too many stories of lives lost and families destroyed. This action shows just how seriously the NHS takes the threat of gambling addiction, even in young people, but we need to be clear – tackling mental ill health caused by addiction is everyone’s responsibility – especially those firms that directly contribute to the problem.’

This is put very much into perspective with the tragic story of Jack Ritchie, who committed suicide aged 24 and it illustrates the problems for agencies working with young people. Beginning when he was at school, his addiction amounted to a serious problem very soon after that. Particularly important was his addiction to fixed odds betting terminals, which have come into the public’s focus in recent times.

What is clear is that gambling is not often considered a child-protection concern on its own and even when present in children with complex emotional and behavioural issues, isn’t normally high on practitioners’ agendas.

So where are the support networks for someone like Jack, and what is the scale of the problem?

Firstly, everyone working with young people needs to look at The Gambling Commission recently published annual report on Young People and Gambling; it shows the following areas of concern:

• 14% of young people gamble regularly and this figure is higher than those who smoke, drink or take drugs.
• This number equates to over 450,000 young people and is 2% higher than in 2017
• Of this number 55,000 young people have been labelled as problem gamblers
• 6% of respondents had gambled on gambling premises while 7% had gambled privately with friends and 5% had played a National Lottery game.

This research also points to a near doubling of at risk and problem gamblers since 2014 and although there may be technical reasons for some of this increase it still represents a significant concern.

What is likely is that with thresholds for child protection rising and need increasing it is probable that the needs of young people with gambling issues will struggle to find accessible effective support services to assist either in school or elsewhere.

It is obvious that frontline practitioners need access to resources that schools, youth groups and others working with young people need. In other addiction scenarios such as substance misuse, tier 3 and 4 interventions are rich in literature, educational resources and interventions. However, in terms of resources, expertise and practical interventions there is a dearth of what is needed for front line practitioners.

These staff have long since known that addiction issues have many antecedents and that an appreciation of these at all levels of local and national government is needed quite urgently

That would give front line workers an appreciation and an understanding of problems that they may face and treatment models that are known to be effective. These courses are available as face-to-face and as eLearning, represent the work of experts in the field and draws from a great many sources to allow everyone concerned to know the scale of the problems as well as treatment options and practical solutions.

These include, social, psychological and pharmacological solutions that bear on the knowledge of addiction and treatment options and an understanding of talking therapies such as motivational interviewing (MI), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and Prochaska and Di Clemente’s theory on the cycle of change.

It is well known that emotional well-being and environmental factors are key indicators of addiction issues and that means that children in need and Children Looked After are especially vulnerable in this arena. Practitioners are likely to minimise the corrosive emotional impact of gambling to focus on more obvious addiction issues. There are resources available that address this and give practitioners a set of tips and tools that social workers can use to engage with and empower young people who are wrestling with gambling issues.

Children and young people generally and children looked after in particular have never had as much pressures to gamble; from loot boxes to lotto they are being bombarded every day with some very difficult to resist pressures from advertising, peer pressure and social normalisation of gambling. Everyone but most especially local government services need a range of interventions and resources to combat this difficult topic.

Ian Butler is gambling expert at The Training Hub

Useful resources:

Tackling gambling related harm – a whole council approach
Understanding and responding to gambling-related harm: A brief guide for professionals

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