People often ask us:
How do I respond if someone approaches me about a problem with the pokies or online gambling?
First, take a minute to recognise that they are showing enormous love and trust by confiding in you. They are performing an emotional trust fall, and it is a crucial first step. It takes bravery to share what they are going through, whether they are dealing with a problem themselves or terrified for a loved one. What they are experiencing is painful and frightening. It’s likely that they chose you because they trust you and think talking to you can help — but remember, that doesn’t mean they expect you to solve their problem for them.
So, how can you help?
1. Show empathy and understanding
The most important thing is to listen to the person and let them know you care. Be present, open and accepting. Your support may help them find the courage to seek the next step to making change.
2. Be non-judgmental
Your friend or family member is still the same person they have always been. They are not ‘an addict’, or ‘a gambler’. They’re just Josh, Nick, Lisa or Sally, with a problem they’re struggling to deal with right now. They probably carry enough stigma, guilt, shame and remorse of their own. They can’t carry yours too.
Always remember that you are in a position of privilege and trust as their confidant. Your kindness has never been more important to them. Your belief that they are still the same person who is worthy of help and respect will help them believe it too.
3. Recognise the achievement of sharing their problem
If it’s hard for you to hear that your friend or loved one has been gambling more than they can afford to lose and that this gambling has put them in debt, imagine how hard it’s been for them to live it. People often live with their problem in secret for years because of shame and a fear of judgment and never seek help at all When they finally find the courage to speak the problem aloud, it’s important to reward them for their courage.
Thank them for their honesty. Hold the person in that space of admission and work with them towards finding a way out of their situation. All you have to do is listen.
4. Don’t try to force them into treatment —
Some people aren’t ready to seek help from a professional right away. Telling you about the problem is still a big step, and you don’t need to push them into treatment immediately. Professional treatment can seem frightening, and not everybody approaches it at the same speed.
In fact the research suggests that with all the self-help tools available a lot of people with issues with gambling manage to overcome that problem by themselves or with support from friends and family. However if after a trial period, the person still does not feel able to manage their gambling, professional help can make a big difference.
5. — but if they’re ready, work with them to find help
If they do ask for help, find out what they need first and foremost. There are a lot of different options, and it can be overwhelming to deal with alone, so go through the options with them.
6. Share your feelings
This might be a difficult experience for you, whether you’re completely shocked or honestly not that surprised. Maybe you had some inkling about what was going on — you might have had a sinking feeling and now your suspicions have been confirmed. You might be totally blown away by surprise that your loved one has been struggling with a gambling problem. The surprise might be so strong that it knocks you over and takes your breath away. In any case, your feelings are normal.
Sometimes when we’re very scared fear can be expressed as anger, so give yourself a minute to collect yourself. When you’ve found calm, you can be honest and share your reaction with them. If you’re in pain, it’s ok to tell them that, without blaming or accusing words.
‘I’m so sorry that you’re going through this, it hurts me to see you struggle but I’m glad you’re not struggling alone anymore.’
‘It scared me to hear that and I’m sure it scared you to tell me. It was so brave of you to share so we can deal with it together now.’
‘Are you ok? If there’s anything I can do to help, I want to.’
7. Let them know they’re not that different from anyone else
We all have problems sometimes. We all have vices and faults and coping mechanisms. Some are healthier than others. Most people have adopted a dysfunctional coping strategy at some point in their lives. In fact, 1 in 5 Australians will experience a problem with drugs, alcohol or gambling in their lifetime. This is one of the most common health problems you can have.
We are such complex beings — filled with emotion and nuances and needs and histories and everything that makes us who we are. Our paths are formed by the convergence of decisions and circumstances.
8. Realise that it could have been you in different circumstances
Most of us could find ourselves on a difficult path in the right circumstances. At a crucial moment in your life you might have stood at a fork with two unmarked paths: choose Path A and everything will turn out fine, but choose Path B and you’ll end up in the treacherous woods. Unfortunately, you might not realise which you’ve chosen until you’re already fending off wolves and ghosts and wicked old witches.
You chose Path A. Your friend chose Path B and now they’re alone in in the woods trying to get away from the wolves. Once they realise they hate Path B, though, they don’t have to stay on it. They can reach out to friends, family, and professionals who can help them forge a new path through the woods.
That’s what you’re doing by listening to their problems. Helping them forge a new path. With the addictive nature of the way gambling is now presented and the cognitive distortions we are all open to, it is easy to fall into a gambling problem but difficult to climb out. But with the right non-judgemental, unconditional love and support we can all get to where we want to go — the path to recovery and back to how best selves.
9. Get some help for yourself
This is a difficult experience, and it’s important for you to be supported so you can continue to offer your loved one support.
You might feel like you have to keep this experience to yourself because your loved one isn’t ready for other people in their lives to know what’s going on. That’s ok. That doesn’t mean you are alone. Gambler’s Help services all over Australia are available to support you as you support a friend or loved one whether that person is seeking help from them or not.
If you’d like to speak to people who understand what you’re going through, you can reach out to the members of the Gambling Help Online Peer Support Forums on the Family & Friends board.
You can also call 1800 858 858 or chat to us online at Gambling Help Online — free, 24/7, confidential.
This blog is adapted from a piece that originally appeared on Counselling Online.