Digital Health: Gambling

If you were recovering from drinking alcohol too much, it wouldn’t be a good idea to carry a bottle of booze around with you. These days, even carrying a mobile phone would be risky as in most cities you can order drink to be delivered 24/7 – for a lot of cash true, but when you’ve ‘got a habit’ any financial sense is the last thing that will protect you.

With gambling the problem is much worse. Unless you get rid of your phone and every other digital device you constantly have a casino in your pocket or near at hand on your other devices, 24/7 – in bed, at work, driving, on the bus or train, watching sports on television. And you’ll be assailed by precisely designed marketing to ‘enjoy’ playing ‘games’ precisely and scientifically designed to be potential instruments of addiction. Or instruments of torture.

You have choices with alcohol. Pour it down the sink. Avoid socialising with drinkers, at least early on in your recovery. Don’t carry it with you. Obviously.

But with gambling, unless you completely cut yourself off from the digital world, the supply is there by default. It follows you wherever you go. Younger people are ‘digital natives’. To them gambling is a completely normal and fun activity, especially associate with sport and sporting heroes. Loot boxes and other ‘games’ blur the boundary between childhood behaviour and adult ‘fun’. Every kid wants to grow up and act like the adults. Immersed in constant usage of digital devices – for good or ill – the ease of quick-thrill access to gambling, pornography and drugs (the latter just a text message away for quick delivery) puts many – not all – young people in harm’s way. What age checks may officially exist are easily circumnavigated. In the digital world you are not a thirteen-year-old you are a bundle of data. Very profitable data.

On our main site, The Machine Zone, we have begun to examine the huge area of what is known as Digital Health. This phrase is riding like a juggernaut through health services including the NHS and is already a multi-trillion dollar corporate industry. It is heavily promoted as A.Very.Good.Thing. In many ways it is and will be: there can be no doubt about that. But we’ll be looking at some more precautionary views. While data sharing can speed up and enhance healthcare, for instance, there are concerns about privacy. There’s also the question of whether a consultation with a human doctor may be more beneficial than diagnosis and treatment via remote apps and algorithms.

Well, it’s also the case that digital health should, in the interests of prevention, consider the digital causes of illness and ill-being. There are, in the case of gambling, many apps which prevent digital bank transactions – and credit card transactions are now illegal. One may ask, and be certain to be fiercely argued against, whether a truly effective preventive method may see the complete banning of all digital online gambling and hence marketing. Such a radical move, even the proposal, is enmeshed in the fundamental political questions around business and personal freedom, business and personal responsibility, loss in tax revenue, and – of course – the deprivation for millions who enjoy a little flutter responsibly and safely. Even tobacco regulation hasn’t gone nearly so far, and surely tobacco causes far more illness and death than gambling. All true.

It is hard to see where treatment for people with gambling-related distress may develop. ‘Addiction services’ in the UK have been decimated since the government transferred responsibility to local councils reeling under budget cuts. Stigmatising attitudes in all mental health care are institutionalised. Medical professionals, through no fault, do not have the knowledge and experience to help. Stigma prevents many people admitting to problems and seeking what help there may be. That help is there in some geographical regions (although in Scotland there are no dedicated gambling services). Anti-stigma projects around mental health are proving of some success: people generally are willing to identify their own issues, such as depression, and seek help. Perhaps one way forward to destigmatising gambling issues is to launch an ongoing social media campaign – the very social media that have proved their weight in gold to businesses of every shade. Funding for such a campaign is unlikely; less so a willingness to see the need for such a campaign.

The weight of prevention of gambling harms has been given over to schools and social enterprises funded ultimately by voluntary donations from the gambling industry. There is much good work being done – along with some not so good work. The big problem is that educational initiatives have behind them a paucity of evidence, research and effectiveness evaluation. Whether by design or not, the weight given to education repeats the dominant ideology of modern capitalism: individuals are responsible for their choices and behaviour; individuals identified as ‘pathological’ or ‘failing’ should be given support but ultimately everything is down to them. The responsibility of industry is thereby de-emphasised – in the case of gambling, the industry’s social responsibility to ensure harm minimisation by discontinuing harmful products, marketing and willingness to reduce profits in the name of rigorous procedures to monitor and prevent individual disasters. Not everybody will agree with this; some will vigorously disagree. That’s life, that’s politics, and no one anywhere can press a magic button to produce a win-win. The savage legal restrictions faced by the tobacco industry, the negative social perception of tobacco, emerged after more than 50 years of furious debate. While it’s true that the comparison between gambling and tobacco is often too heavily simplified and overstated, from a health perspective there remains a good deal to learn good lessons.

One of the dangers around ‘digital health’ is that it is embedded in wider ideological worship of data and algorithms. Buzz-words are efficiency, cost-saving, productivity. Unsurprisingly, the same words are almost holy icons in business. It can tend to work at a population level, seeking to insert a living human individual into a categorised ‘box’. It was the philosopher Kierkegaard who said, ‘To label me is to dehumanise me’. Sadly, in our ordinary lives we do tend to label people: ‘waster’, ‘junkies’, ‘alkies’. Big Data takes labelling into the realms of a high art, an ethereal cloud of digital bits totally disunited from the hearts and souls of a whole, living individual with all that means. The word ‘whole’ is where we get the word ‘health’ from. In seeking and recognising the unique wholeness of a person we have to go beyond statistics, data and ‘evidence’. That’s why it’s greatly to be welcomed that far below the data clouds the voices of individuals are being heard more and more. In health generally, perhaps most visibly, ‘Experts by Experience’ are coming to the fore. In what relatively little gambling research there is, there is a turn away from quantitative data-crunching towards qualitative research focused on individual human experiences, the voices of whole individuals. Such approaches may, of course, be appropriated by powerful stake-holders, including the researchers themselves, to ultimately hide those voices. Yet it cannot be denied that the gathered voices of ordinary people have been successful in so many ways in ‘bottom-up’ challenges to policy making so often driven drom the ‘top-down’.

We live in a digital world, breathe it, an air as invisible and taken-for-granted as the sea is by the fish that swim there. But we aren’t bits of cork bobbing about and carried this way and that by environments over which we have no control. We are not bits of data, we are human beings rich with the powers of solidarity and more power than we sometimes realise to make a better world just by being who we are.

 

Addiction and Personal Responsibility

One of the hottest topics relating to addiction is the concept of personal responsibility.

Do addicts bring it on themselves? Are addicts morally weak? Do addicts repeatedly fail in recovery because they refuse to take on responsibility?

On the other hand, it can be rightly claimed that all this emphasis on the individual is distorting an understanding of addiction. If, as some claim, addiction is a ‘disease’ how can people be responsible for it? Why is there virtually no alcohol addiction in Saudi Arabia (where alcohol is prohibited by law)? What social factors play a part in addiction? Do some commercial products – tobacco is an example – ‘hook’ some people in the right circumstances?

There is no such thing as an addict; there are only individuals suffering with addiction. Everybody is different, but some groups seem more prone to addiction to others. In the professions journalists, the police, doctors, entertainers, sportspeople and politicians have high rates of addiction. So too do people with multiple and complex disadvantages such as homelessness, poverty, lack of educational and cultural capital, mental illness, criminal background, adverse childhood experiences, trauma – or just one of these.

And people from different social backgrounds seem to be treated very differently when their addictions come to light. Newspaper readers will weep over the death of a pop idol through drugs; a politician will be praised for his ‘brave struggle’ against alcohol. In popular culture – films, books and television – we have come to expect our flawed heroes often to have an addiction problem as one of their flaws, a lonewolf cop bucking the rules and knocking back malt whisky while meditating on a case, a singer in rehab, a public figure making public penance.

Less favourably are seen the ‘scagheads’, the ‘junkies’,  the street addicts, the working class addicts. Although victims all their lives of unequal and unjust social conditions, turning to drugs or drink or gambling to escape if only for a moment, it is they who are most harshly blamed and despised for their lack of responsibility – while those with a lifetime of advantages are treated with adulation and sympathy.

In his remarkable book, Good Cop Bad War, former undercover cop Neil Woods charts his journey of increasing knowledge through the ‘low life’ of desperate addicts (in contrast to the venomous gangster business cartels that bring drugs to market). He grow increasingly sympathetic to the friends he makes while pretending to be himself an addict. Apart from their addiction, most are essentially decent, often intelligent, kind and caring. One such friend , Cammy, tells him his heart-felt news that he has heard a good friend has died. Neil asks whether he will go to the funeral to say goodbye and Cammy replies, ‘I’m not going to the funeral. I wouldn’t do that to the family. The last thing they want is some dirty junkie turning up and ruining everything.’ As Woods observes, ‘No matter how society may condemn and look down on the addict, it is never, ever as low a view as he has of himself.’

That internalisation of social attitudes and stigma is something all addicts have to deal with. Part of them remains ‘clean’ and is a constant accusing voice; the addict hates themself. Guilt and shame alone can maintain an addiction – that belief of such utter worthlessness that there is no point in trying to stop, instead seeking that absurd temporary negation of inner torment with a fix.

Of course, those with a lot going for them tend to do better. Not everybody, of course: the nature of every individual addiction, while having common attributes, is unique in the complexities of an individual. It’s probably easier on the whole if you’re, say, a teacher to have three months leave on full pay to attend rehab, or just to get your life together, than if you are without any money, any support, any care, any love, surviving in brutal conditions. Though yes, many who seem to have well insulated lives with all the support in place do succumb, grow sick and die. And yes, too, some at the very bottom recover and flourish.

There are as many as 40% of addicts who recover spontaneously, relatively painlessly, without any intervention by ‘experts’ or support organisations. A well known example of this is ‘maturing out’ whereby young people who have addictive or risky tendencies literally grow out of them when they settle into employment, get married, start a family. Another famous example is how 80% of American soldiers deemed heroin addicted in Vietnam lost their addiction when they returned to the States and their families. Against this, many others in recovery are certain that addiction is a disease for life and that the only way to manage it is by faithfully following a programme such as a 12-steps one.

A word is needed here too about dependence versus addiction. Through force of habit, culture, lifestyle, many drinkers, for instance consume not only health-damaging amounts but quantities which make them physically dependent. The withdrawl from physical dependency can be life threatening and ideally requires medical supervision. Yet many heavy drinkers then go onto just stop or greatly limit consumption: they were heavy drinkers, not alcohol addicts. There is an additional dependence which is separate from addiction – psychological dependence. Partly this is just the force of habit, neural correlates in the brain ‘speaking’ loudly to perform an action when certain triggers arise. Usually one can become psychologically dependent on a substance or activity to avoid stress, negative feelings or often an undiagnosed mental disorder such as anxiety and depression. Dependence can, and often does, lead to addiction but it’s still possible to recognise a dependence and take responsibility for halting it with acceptance of necessary effort and suffering which will vary greatly in terms of time and intensity according to unique individuals in unique circumstances.

Addiction by its very nature, the heart of addiction, disowns the individual’s core self. It disowns the possibility of being responsible for one’s destiny, for making deep choices. No addict will be able to understand what is going on. They are fully aware of the misery they leave in their wake, of their loss of pride, reputation, money, health, relationships, status, children. They desperately want to stop. But they can’t. In the old days people spoke of a demon inside that controlled them. The demon took them over. This degree of inner torment varies from individual to individual. It’s certainly true that there are many ‘highly functioning addicts’ in all walks of life, folk nobody begins to suspect as being an addict, and, of, course, another core attribute of addiction is the addict’s propensity to deny their addiction. It’s for this reason that common wisdom has it that people must ‘hit rock bottom’ before they can start to recover. This is, fortunately, a myth. It may be true that a secret gambler’s addiction only comes to light when the bailiffs arrive to take the family home and he or she spirals into heavy debt, bankruptcy, prison or failed suicide attempts. But in many cases – often in consort with worried others – many are lucky enough to address their addiction before absolute calamity.

The foregoing suggests just a few of the strands in the complexity of an individual’s addiction. If there is a common attribute of addiction it is that to take responsibility for recovery one must already have made a vital move. This vital move, this perception that one is not only the addicted self, is the precursor of recovery. For some, this vital move is totally unconscious and involves little pain and effort, for others it is a lifelong process.

To conclude, to return to the topic of addiction and responsibility. All of us are a product of our environments, probably more so than products of our genes. Children have been sold drugs from icecream vans (dealers do not ask for age verification or advise responsible use of their products) so 12 year olds have become heroin addicts. The vans are part of the environment, behind the vans are networks of the drugs business, also part of the environment. People continue to smoke cigarettes but on the packets is written ‘smoking kills’, and tobacco is more and more restricted by government policies: it’s recognised that tobacco addiction is not the result of weak responsibility in individuals. Campaigns to restrict and limit junk food (itself  addictive), sugar, salt, fat are not controversial. People argue about minimum pricing for alcohol, but the argument is not see as being around any bizarre claims. In short, government and industry are seen as having a major role in addressing the damage that harmful products may do to individuals and society, including addictive products.

Current debate about addiction is skewed towards a focus on individual responsibility. Just as a parent is deemed responsisible for feeding their children high doses of sugar and fat (these being by far the cheapest foods to buy for those in poverty), so the addict is held reponsible for choosing their addiction (even if this was motivated by a need to escape misery and despair into 20 minutes of artificial paradise). There are no jackpots, magic fixes that will ever beat the scourge of addiction but government and industry have to stop denying their role and play their part in attenuating it.

(An academic, nuanced discussion of responsibility and addiction is in The Journal of Gambling Issues)

 

Addiction and Personal Responsibility

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OF ALL the many terrible attributes of addiction one which can be the most painful is being not understood and being blamed for one’s own misfortune. Stigma against all mental health problems abounds in our society. It can heap on an ill person the vicious taunts of those who state or imply that she or he is worthless, scum, a moral weakling, something unclean. Indeed an addict is weak but not in those ways. More weak in the way that anyone who is ill becomes weak. Bullies, of course, choose weak and vulnerable people as their targets.

Imagine giving someone with an alcohol problem a bottle of whiskey as a present. Then imagine that the person who drinks the stuff becomes very ill, maybe even dies. Then the fool who gave them the alcohol says in defence, “Well, they didn’t have to drink it. I didn’t make them. They could have given it to the local church as a prize in their raffle.”

It is unfeasible to think that substances like alcohol or other drugs will ever go away, and addiction is likely to always be a problem. But to deliberately and knowingly provide someone who is the vulnerable state of addiction with a product that is deadly to them, while not illegal, is morally reprehensible. The fact that you cannot stop the production and distribution of alcohol and other hard drugs does not remove your responsibility, your moral responsibility, to do whatever you can to limit access by those in danger. Any decent person would surely be appalled if just that was being done by high street business brands.

The very nature of addiction is that it robs a person, disowns them, of their power of responsibility. It literally embeds neural pathways which disrupt inhibition while enhancing compulsive excitation circuits. There are thousands of research studies about the nature of addiction, but those in recent years which use brain scanning are pointing more and more to precise neural substrates which are involved. Whether addiction is ’caused’ by social factors, adverse childhood experiences, culture, experiential learning, genetics or some combination of these is not the point: the result is the same.

While the good news is that many, probably the majority, of people with addiction can and do recover – often with no support from agencies or health providers – the fact is inescapable that people who are totally at any given time pierced by addiction are vulnerable to exploitation. To say that society should provide opportunities for individual recovery is a good thing. But it is a very bad thing for society to turn its back on the merest whiff of business or industry deliberately exploiting human misery. It is the responsibility of every citizen to fight such evils.

Addiction. Mental Health. Which?

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We were enjoying cappuccino and chatting about the somewhat ambiguous relationship between ‘mental health’ and ‘addiction’. Not being experts, the questions we raised only represent the view from the bottom – or, more precisely, they only represent our own coffee time discussion.

  • Why do campaign groups big support organisations, medical and government sources seem very reluctant to include addiction as a mental health issue? Certainly they all mention addiction but it seems to us that it is put in a box of its own and not given anything like the prominence of, for instance, depression and anxiety.
  • This seems odd especially because it is well known that depression and anxiety alone are very closely related with substance and behavioural addictions. They may lead to addictions via ‘self medication’ or the impulse to escape intolerable pain; both are likely consequences of addiction. It’s a cycle.
  • We are aware of the concept of  ‘dual diagnosis’ or ‘comorbidity’ where addiction is often accompanied by another mental health disorder. We are aware too that this is well known among professionals and has been researched and discussed for decades. There are organisations dedicated to researching and promoting discussion around dual diagnosis, such as Progress and many others but in practice we believe on the ground support and awareness is patchy geographically or non-existent.
  • Give that some mental health disorders such as gambling addiction and bipolar have high rates of comorbid substance abuse we find it odd that publicity around the issue is very feeble.
  • Anti-stigma campaigns around mental health issues are to be celebrated if they are evidenced as effective. Stigma is a huge barrier to recovery, seeking treatment and engaging socially. Yet we are not aware of any ongoing, well-resourced anti-stigma campaigns relating to addiction.
  • In our next post we consider the prevalence of addiction in the UK. We are concerned that a great deal of suffering is not being as adequately addressed as it could and should be.