This week the conservative government in the UK announced proposals to introduce smart cards to those in receipt of benefits. Benefits would be paid onto smartcards and would block transactions for products such as alcohol, gambling and cigarettes.The aim is to prevent money being wasted on these products and to protect the children of those affected by addiction from deprivation and other undoubtedly dreadful consequences of addiction. The aim might be with the best of intentions, but based on my extensive clinical experience, I cannot help but thinking it is off target.
The reason that in my professional opinion I believe this will not work is that once again we are desperately trying to treat symptoms – wasting money- but not underlying causes. So often I see this happening because as a society we really for the most part still do not ‘get’ what addiction – and certainly so gambling addiction- really is all about. Like the idea of smartcards we come from the baseline assumption that the person with the problem is just irresponsible with money and so imagine that managing their money will make the problem will go away.
We need to understand that as is any addiction, gambling addiction is frequently an attempt to self-medicate stress, depression and anxiety. Living life on benefits is frequently stressful, depressing and anxiety provoking . It certainly is for the many lone mothers on benefits whom I have worked with over my fourteen year practice with gambling addiction. These women are not gambling because they are not responsible enough with money, but because they are finding their responsibilities too much. Gambling starts out as a little escapism, some time out before they pick up their responsibilities again. Of course, too much time and money spent starts a downward spiral of loss chasing leading to more stress, depression and anxiety. Would smartcards help their recovery? Not without also addressing the underlying causes. Stopping the ability to spend money on gambling would not stop the cravings to gamble. Without appropriate professional support this would lead in some cases to borrowing money from doorstep lenders, pay day loans and loan sharks. Even if not leading to the trap of borrowing more money to gamble, it would lead to being thrown into unprepared and unsupported withdrawal, the effects of which are excruciating emotionally, mentally and physically. Anyone in early unsupported withdrawal would find it very hard to be responsible for the very children the proposed smartcard aims to protect.
Where does the essential support come from for the stress, depression and anxiety that drive the gambling addiction? With recent reports revealing that UK mental health services are taking so long to see patients that thousands attempt suicide each year, not only might those whose mental health has suffered because of being on benefits have to wait intolerable lengths of time, but another group I see frequently in my practice. Those who are on benefits because they have mental health problems would also be affected by the smartcard. Gambling as self medication is never a good thing, but for some in this situation can feel like the lesser of two evils. For Samantha, her anxiety and depression when out of control had led to several overdoses, she had swapped overdosing to ‘knock herself out’ for escapism of gambling. She did not want to do either, but several times when in crisis had to wait so long for an appointment with mental health services, that a few £s and a bit of time online felt a better option than another overdose. I fear for what might have happened had Samantha not had the smartcard removed her option to gamble at those times.
So, like any strategy to take away the ability to gamble without addressing the reasons for the need, I believe smartcards would not be not enough. Additionally, how would benefit smartcards help address the issue of the ever increasing numbers of middle class professional women we now see gambling online ?
What would helpful to all ?:
- Swifter access to support addressing all relevant issues
- Increasing access to gambling treatment services
- Specialist support groups
- Drop in centers
- Growing a sense of community and belonging
The last point is by no means least important. At its core gambling addiction for women is about isolation, and loneliness leading to the stress, depression and anxiety I spoke of, leading to the self medication of addictive gambling. In the long term, we need to make improvements to society our baseline approach, if we want to get smart about addiction.