The Numbers Don’t Add Up for Problem Gambling

It’s an irrefutable fact – Australians are the biggest losers in the world. UK market data firm, H2 Gambling Capital’s latest figures reveal that in 2017 Australians lost $USD 958 per adult (that’s $AUD 1,324) – well ahead of Hong Kong, the second biggest loser at $USD 768 and Singapore at $USD 725i.

As a nation, we love gambling, it’s as Australian as a beer and a bar-be-que. In fact, it’s very hard to avoid.

According to the Northern Beaches Council, excluding casino destinations like Macau and Monaco, Australians have more poker machines per person than any other country, nearly 200,000 of them and a whopping 2,228 are located in the Northern Beachesii. And gambling is becoming even more accessible online and on mobile, with the Government’s Australian Gambling Research Centre decreeing that interactive gambling is increasing in popularity and is the fastest growing mode of gamblingiii.

Gambling isn’t necessarily a problem. Problem gambling is a problem.

Problem or disordered gambling isn’t just placing a bet once a year on the Melbourne Cup, nor is it playing the lottery every week. It’s when someone has impaired control of their choice to gamble, when they give increasing priority to it, when they escalate their gambling despite negative consequences and when it’s persistent and recurrent (continuous or episodic)iv.

Until recently, problem gambling was regarded as an “impulse control disorder”. However the global classification standards for the diagnoses of mental disorders and diseases: the DSM-5 (USA) and the ICD-11 (World Health Organisation), have both recently revised this position, now classifying gambling disorder with “substance-related and addictive disorders” in recognition of the condition as an addictioniv.

The recent reclassification supports what we practice at South Pacific Private (SPP) – that problem gambling should be fully recognised as a serious addictive disorder – and treated as a chronic and relapsing condition. SPP’s evidence-based treatment is unique in that it uses a specific trauma-informed therapeutic model to help identify the clients’ individual needs.

So how do you know when gambling becomes problem gambling? The Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) is the standardised measure used globally to determine ‘at risk’ behaviour in problem gambling. Taking a simple quiz can help you determine if you or someone you know is at risk of being or becoming a problem gambler from low-risk (score 1-2), moderate-risk (score 3 – 7), or problem (8 or above)v.

Problem gambling is just one of the problems facing the problem gambler. Data from the NSW Gambling Help services shows that up to 50% of problem gamblers also access services for anxiety and depression, 40% have had thoughts of suicide, 12% have made suicide attempts and 30% have problems with alcohol or drug usevii.   

When more than one addiction or mental health condition is present, the conditions are termed co-morbid. South Pacific Private has been specialising in the treatment of co-morbid conditions including gambling disorder for over 25 years. However, as the primary diagnosis is most often recorded as the co-morbid condition such as depression or alcohol dependence, so the prevalence of problem gambling is very likely to be under-reported.

The context of all of this is very sobering and the question is, how bad can it get? As reported by The Guardian, Academics at Lund University in Sweden, who observed over 2,000 problem gamblers over an 11-year period, have revealed that problem gamblers could be 15 times more likely to die by suicide than those who don’t have a problem and 19 times more likely if they are men between the ages of 20 and 49viii.

Australians are generally an optimistic mob and attitudes towards gambling in Australia are unexpectedly casual. It’s a part of our culture, much like drinking, that we openly embrace. While we don’t want to hear about how bad things are in far-flung countries, we all know, or know of someone who’s at risk of becoming or being a problem gambler, and there’s no denying, the prognosis is not good. So what can you do to help someone who is heading for trouble?

At South Pacific Private, we believe you first have to help yourself. Being a partner or friend of someone in addiction, who is a problem gambler puts your financial security in jeopardy. More seriously, you are shouldering a burden which could put your own mental health at risk. Arming yourself with education on the subject and learning about what’s required for recovery will help you, to help them. 

If you are concerned for a loved one, South Pacific Private runs Family Education & Support Group – an open day course for $300. It’s a six hour program held on Tuesdays from 10:00am – 4:00pm and facilitated by an experienced SPP therapist. The course material has been specifically designed for family, friends and carers of people who are struggling with addiction. 

For more information about SPP’s Family Education & Support Group call 1800 063 332 or info@southpacificprivate.com.au.

For more information about the Problem Gambling Support Group, call Lifeline Northern Beaches on 9949 5522 or visit www.lifelinenb.org.au.

If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis help is available. Please call Lifeline, whose experienced team can support you or your loved one on 13 11 14.


  1. Stephen Letts (2018) Chart of the day: Are Australians the world’s biggest gambling losers? You can bet on it, ABC News
  2. Northern Beaches Council Gambling and Poker Machine (EGMs) Harm Management Plan 2018 – 2023
  3. Gainsbury (2014) Australian Gambling Research Centre
    ARGC Discussion Paper no.3, 2014 Interactive Gambling
  4. Sztainert (2018) Greo Brief: Gambling in the DSM and ICD. Gambling Research Exchange Ontario
  5. Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation
  6. Australian Gambling Research Centre
    Gambling Activity in Australia.
    Findings from wave 15 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey
  7. Australian Psychological Society. APS Gambling Working Group with Jill Giese MAPS, APS Executive Officer. In Psych 2010. Vol 32.
    Special Report: The Psychology of Gambling
  8. Problem Gamblers at 15 times higher risk of suicide, study finds
    The Guardian, Rob Davies, March 2019
  9. Problem gamblers much more likely to attempt suicide – study
    The Guardian, Rob Davies, July 2019