The role of gambling in family violence

The role of gambling in family violence

by Raymond Gill

‘We are constantly up against the sports betting ads,’ says Jody Riordan, a Gambler’s Help team leader and community support worker at Gateway Health in the Upper Murray region. ‘They undermine our work.’

Gateway Health delivers a men’s behaviour change (MBC) program in Wodonga and Wangaratta. Since 2019, it has integrated a gambling harm component into the program.

‘The gambling module increases awareness of the harms and the risk of harms,’ continues Jody. ‘It provides an understanding of how gambling and sports marketing work.’

Jo Newell is Gateway Health’s clinical leader of family safety who has overseen the integration of the gambling harm component into the program.

‘We … recognise the links between family violence and gambling.’ Jo Newell

‘We run the MBC program for men where family violence occurs within relationships and recognise the links between family violence and gambling,’ Jo says while emphasising it’s not a given that the men in the program are physically violent.

‘Technically it’s voluntary but many men are under a court order or a child protection order to attend.

‘We need them to understand all the forms of family violence such as stalking; monitoring and isolating their family members; limiting or preventing access to family finances; gaslighting and deliberate attempts to undermine her emotional and psychological health; and harmful disruption of parent and child relationships.’

Groups of eight to 10 men from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and ranging in age from 18 to those in their 60s participate. The program runs for 20 weeks and requires participants to attend two hours a week.

The intensive gambling module comes halfway through the 20 weeks.

‘This gives the group time to digest the MBC content,’ says Jody, ‘then individuals are ready to reflect and explore how the learnings might be applied in a gambling context.’

In one group activity, the participants look at how the human brain behaves during gambling.

‘Yes, we build a brain,’ Jody says. ‘We use a ball of string to show the neural pathways and build all the pathways and connections to make a healthy brain, and then we talk about the addictive brain. It’s a visual aid to help explain how learned behaviours can be relearned.’

Both Jo and Jody say that while they recognise men are responsible for their own choices, participants are shown how societal and gender norms can shape their behaviour.

This is where ads for sports gambling apps come in. Jody shows the group a range of sports betting ads and then they discuss the messages they convey.

‘The masculine norm is for men to be stoic, drive a good car, have a good job and not show emotion,’ she says.

‘The ads make men out to be exempt from any of [gambling’s] harms. They show the activity as harmless, stress-free fun, and an example of modern mateship.

‘Although gambling on an app is often done alone, at home or work, they usually feature young men in social settings who appear to be having the time of their lives.

‘If women are featured, it’s often in a sexualised way or as a jokey, wink-wink reference to having a punt behind the partner’s back.’

Jo adds that sports betting ads play to a male stereotype and ‘reinforce that it’s men who are in charge of the money, and they can do what they want with their money’.

The gambling information sessions then deal with self-care and how men can learn to change pathways to aim for a healthier family life.

But it’s not magic.

Program participants are screened to ensure they are open to having their belief systems challenged. The men are required to be ‘ready to acknowledge the impact of [their] violent, controlling, or coercive behaviour towards [their] partner, ex-partner, children, or other family members’.

‘If a man is not ready for change, or is in a victim-blaming state, or aggrieved, he may not be ready for the program,’ cautions Jo.

The program has a high retention rate (about 80 per cent). With a duty of care to participants and the partners and children impacted by their violence, support is offered via follow-up services such as survivor, family and/or parenting services, counselling, including specialised Gambler’s Help and alcohol and other drug counselling offered by Gateway Health, or referrals to other appropriate services.

‘Family safety is paramount to everything we do,’ says Jody.

‘The flow-on effect for the men is increased safety for themselves and their loved ones which improves their wellbeing.’

The Gateway Health Gambler’s Help team is funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

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