Gambling: How to get help as addiction worsens


It’s not uncommon for gambling addicts to lose sight of the needs of their families when they are consumed by the desire to win at all costs.

Dr Heidi Sinclair of the SA Responsible Gambling Foundation says the National Responsible Gambling Programme (NRGP) has reported that mothers have even left their newborn babies in the care of preteen children when they go out to get their gambling fix, and men have been known to turn violent when they discover their partners have been hiding money from them in an effort to keep them out of the casino.

“We’ve also seen how gambling can make women promiscuous – they’ll accept money for sex as long they’re able to carry on with their habit. This, of course, poses a threat to their health,” Sinclair says.

“So many families have been torn apart when there is a partner who gambles. In some cases, children are forced to step in as caretakers, which places an enormous responsibility on them; one they are seldom ready for. The lying that usually accompanies a gambling habit also causes problem gamblers to lose their friends.”

While spouses may want nothing to do with their gambling partner’s ways, they will be affected by it financially, especially if they are married in community of property because they are 100% liable for their spouse’s debt.

Geraldine MacPherson, legal marketing specialist at Liberty, says: “When the couple is married in community of property, they are responsible for each other’s debt. In the case of surety slips, a spouse may find themselves responsible for their partner’s debt because you bind yourself as co-principal for the debt – and often not only this specific debt, but any debt the person may incur with a financial institution.

“So it would be wise to exercise caution when signing surety for your spouse if you are not married in community of property.”

Gamblers have been known to resort to criminal activity in their desperation to feed their addiction. Sometimes they will be physically injured, sell all their possessions and even borrow money from loan sharks.

David Briskham, clinical and development director of Twin Rivers Addiction Recovery and Codependency Centre, says: “At Twin Rivers, I worked with a gambler who lost R30 million and also owed money to the Chinese mafia.

“Gambling in South Africa, involving legal and illegal gambling halls, is at epic proportions and, next to alcohol, is the biggest addiction in this country.”

How many people are affected?

Sibongile Simelane-Quntana, executive director of the SA Responsible Gambling Foundation, says that, over the past 17 years, 18 100 people had been helped by the NRGP. The programme is a public-private sector initiative that was founded in June 2000. It is funded by the gambling operators.

Calls to the helpline are free and, if necessary, the caller will be enrolled in an outpatient programme with one of the NRGP’s medical professionals. This is paid for by the programme and not the patient.

In response to the fact that gambling also affects the addict’s family, the SA Responsible Gambling Foundation has introduced a Family Treatment and Counselling Programme, which it announced on Monday through the NRGP.

Sinclair says the initiative provides assistance that ranges from helping the family unit to regain its stability, to giving family members advice on how to handle the financial fallout of a gambling addiction. It’s also free of charge.

But those who have been helped by the NRGP are the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the number of people who suffer from a gambling addiction.

“The people who have come to us have admitted that they had a problem. The figure excludes people who have not come to us, those who haven’t asked for help and those who attend Gamblers Anonymous,” says Simelane-Quntana.

She admits that the system itself is not foolproof.

“There is a collaborative effort between operators and the SA Responsible Gambling Foundation, but it’s up to the individual to get help, which is why the system is letting them down – we leave it to the individual to get help.”

For those who can afford it, there are private institutions that can help with gambling addictions, but these are expensive and are often not covered by a medical aid scheme.

Briskham recommends going to a specialised clinic that understands gambling addiction and knows how to treat it.

“Your average rehab professes to be able to deal with gambling addiction and will try to help the addict in the same way it works with a drug addict, which is unlikely to work. A gambling addiction presents with an individual psychology, which is a specialised area,” he says.

Gambling and getting into debt don’t only affect the poor. According to debt counselling firm DebtBusters, its average client has a net income of R20 000 a month.

Seth Whitehead, marketing manager of Intelligent Debt Management Group, which owns DebtBusters, says: “This is quite a high figure. We see an even spread of income earners signing up for debt counselling [low to high], but what we have been experiencing recently is a big reduction in the average age of our clients – 23% of our new clients now are younger than 30.”

Where to get help
  • The SA Responsible Gambling Foundation is the entity that supervises the National Responsible Gambling Programme 
    Tel: 080 000 6008 (toll free) 
  • Gamblers Anonymous SA 
    Gauteng hotline: 060 624 7140 or 071 377 2746 
    KwaZulu-Natal hotline: 031 209 6359 
    Western Cape hotline: 074 837 4001 
  • Twin Rivers Addiction Recovery Centre 
    Tel: 082 863 3159 

Why it’s so hard to give up

Shaking your gambling addiction can be tough. While the NRGP is backed financially by the gambling operators, the casinos themselves do a lot to encourage the practice once customers enter their premises.

For instance, Sun International, which owns GrandWest Casino in Cape Town, makes gambling effortless – it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it offers smoking and non-smoking gaming facilities; and there’s even a supervised crèche.

Most casinos are built without windows so that players aren’t aware of the time and happily play on. Some casinos even offer free drinks and food to keep people content and focused on the task of gambling – if a gambler grows hungry, they may leave the premises to get a meal and so fall back to reality.

Kavi Kilawan, a certified hypnotherapist, life coach and compulsive behaviour specialist, says: “Casinos apply their marketing as soon as you step into that door and, although their marketing is aggressive, it is subtle enough for you not to notice it. But it has powerful effects on a subconscious level.

“Some may say that this is an unfair strategy – keeping our minds busy while they drain our finances – but we also are given choices all the time,” Kilawan says.

“Unfortunately, these habits are addictive, especially because the casinos make it difficult for us to quit as they make us feel like royalty by giving us ‘gold’ and ‘diamond’ cards.”

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