A program that trains volunteers to speak publicly about their gambling addiction is making inroads into educating communities on the perils of the punt. By Courtney Biggs.

ReSPIN deals out tough talks on gambling addiction

At the City of Whittlesea council, a meeting of outdoor maintenance staff is taking place. A predominantly male group, clad in high-vis gear, is being lectured about the risks of gambling. Staggering statistics are thrown around; poker machines are likened to crystal meth. But only when ReSPIN speaker Dan opens his mouth does the crowd really start to pay attention. He has been addicted to sports betting. This is the story of his recovery.

“I have never seen a room full of people so engaged, literally leaning forward, listening to Dan and his story,” says the council’s social planner, Rebecca Sirianni. “It was quite powerful to watch and also to listen to Dan’s story about his own harm and the ripple effect it had.”

ReSPIN is a part of a host of prevention programs funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. 

“We made a strategic shift to focus more on prevention projects and we quadrupled funding. The project had really tried to target vulnerable groups, as opposed to just offering treatment services,” the foundation’s chief executive, Serge Sardo, said. 

The concept is simple but innovative: a speakers’ bureau of people with lived experience of gambling share their stories in a bid to prevent others from falling down the trap of addiction. 

Public health advocate Dr Susan Rennie made the original submission to the foundation based on a model pioneered by Consumer Voices in New South Wales. She then asked Kate Sommerville to join as co-ordinator. 

1 . Peer-oriented approach

Based on her own experiences of gambling addiction, Sommerville opted to steer away from a clinical approach and towards a peer-oriented community education route. 

“I think there’s a huge difference in organisations run by clinical professionals and organisations run by peers,” she says. “That’s why I really wanted to change the direction altogether. We’re the only peer program in Victoria.”

Sommerville was inspired by the tradition of speakers’ bureaus in the United States and Positive Speakers, an HIV speakers’ bureau that has been running for more than 25 years in Melbourne. 

“I think speakers’ bureaus start up to give the people who have been affected by illness like HIV a voice. There’s a hepatitis B one, there’s a breast cancer one. But there was nothing for gambling. There’s such a stigma attached to gambling and the voice of people who have been harmed hasn’t been heard for a long time.” 

Because of this stigma, ReSPIN finds it challenging to recruit speakers. Initial recruiting came by word of mouth, peer support groups and linked organisations. Sommervillle laments that six months in, there’s no direct link to others with lived experience of gambling who could contribute as speakers. 

“It’s been hard, because gambling has such shame attached to it. People think gamblers, especially poker machine gamblers, are stupid. How could they get so engaged with a machine? That’s the question people ask. That’s a very disempowering position to be in. It’s very hard to come out and say, ‘This happened to me.’ ”

Sommerville muses that, ironically, if this job hadn’t come up she would have never talked about her gambling. 

“I feel very lucky to have this opportunity. I’ve never been open about my gambling before I came to ReSPIN. I couldn’t, it would have affected my professional opportunities, I wouldn’t have been able to get a job. I had to be silent.” 

2 . Sense of community

Margi, who volunteers as a speaker in the program, is grateful for the sense of community it has helped her develop. Speakers feel comfortable in the knowledge they can share their struggles without judgement. “No matter what, the camaraderie is just extraordinary,” she says. “It’s the most precious thing.”

Most speakers are motivated by the idea of turning their own trauma into something meaningful. Many have only ever spoken about their experiences privately in therapy. 

“For most of our speakers, it’s the first time they speak in public and it’s quite liberating,” Sommerville says. “Knowing that they’re doing it, making meaning of their own experience and reaching out to others and helping other people as well.”

Margi agrees that despite the emotional upheaval required to relive those experiences, being able to freely talk about it has a uniquely therapeutic effect. 

“If someone has any kind of problem in their life you can choose to try and forget it and pretend it didn’t happen and never talk about it again … but I think that with gambling, it’s so destructive. So I think it’s really important that people do tell their stories as part of their ongoing recovery.”

But in Whittlesea, the council is dealing with the fact it is ranked in the worst 10 per cent of local government areas for problem gambling. In 2014-15, more than $101 million was lost here on electronic gaming machines.

3 . Changing the conversation

Rebecca Sirianni stresses that the council’s approach centres on “changing the conversation” around gambling. 

“For every person harmed by gambling, there’s the ripple effect,” she says. “When we throw a stone into water, the ripple effect is so far and wide and that’s the gambling harm and that’s what we really want to convey to the community. The harm is far and wide and it doesn’t get talked about.” 

ReSPIN targets its speakers. Former athletes head out to sporting clubs, for instance. Speakers are thoroughly briefed on what demographics will be in the room so they can tailor their content. 

“I think that’s the appeal of the ReSPIN speakers: they are very aware of the audience,” Sirianni says. “It’s their experience but they take parts of it and make it relevant to the audience. Dan really talked about ‘mateship’ and talking it out with your ‘mates’. Dan made it clear at the end of the day it wasn’t just about the money, it was about relationships. It was family, friends, his children. It was really quite powerful in terms of raising awareness of gambling. Putting a human face to the story.” 

Following the talks, speakers encourage the audience to quiz them on all aspects of their recovery and their current life. These sessions sometimes last longer than the talk itself. Some audience members prefer to ask more probing questions one on one after the formal event has ended. 

“People were very engaged and felt very comfortable to ask Dan questions, because he was so open,” says Sirianni. 

Still, these programs are difficult to evaluate in quantitative terms. 

During the Whittlesea sessions, Sirianni provided materials that included anonymous numbers where participants could get help. A follow-up email was sent with prompts for further resources. 

“One participant told me she went home to her partner last night and they had a whole conversation about gambling,” she says. “You never know what people take away and what other conversations they have started with others.” 

4 . A real social problem

But the problem remains a terrible frustration. According to the latest figures, Australians spend $16.3 billion a year gambling. Of that, $9.8 billion goes into pokies.

“It’s a real social problem in every state, except WA where they didn’t allow the poker machines into the community,” Sommerville says. “Poker machines are what makes us the heaviest gamblers in the Western world.” 

Margi bemoans the placement of poker machines in community and social spaces such as RSLs, hotels and pubs. 

“My wish list is that all the machines are taken out of venues and another casino is built and they all get plonked there. 

“I would have never become addicted to them if that was the case, because that’s how I became addicted. Through going to the local hotel dinners and that’s how it became acceptable,” says Margi.

Sardo shares the concern and argues for more regulation of gambling in Australia. “Prevention is twofold,” he says, “in that you do need to educate communities so that they understand the risks of the product, and you also need to influence policy and make sure that governments have the right policy settings.” 

He is also particularly concerned about the influence of sports betting on young people.

“We are really concerned about how gambling is converging with sport in particular. Our biggest concern is today’s youth are more exposed to gambling advertising and access to gambling more than at any other time in history. It is becoming well entrenched in our daily activities.

“Certainly we know, through all the focus groups we run with kids and young people, that it has really entered their subculture. It has really entered into how they enjoy sport.” 

There are plans to expand the ReSPIN program, to engage young people, and to become more culturally diverse. In the meantime, its speakers keep talking.

“The bottom line,” Margi says, “is the stories need to be told.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "Tough talks".

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Courtney Biggs is a freelance journalist currently based in New York.

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