Stigma: Tell Your Story

Stigma, shame, guilt can be a heavy load to bear leading to a horrible sense of isolation with nowhere to turn.

We’re working on a project, to be delivered online by March 2021, which aims to reduce the stigma around gambling by awareness-raising, provide ideas for individuals to cope with stigma, and share lived experience of gambling stigma. How bad was it? Did it stop you – or does it stop you – from reaching for support? Did you find ways to handle internalised stigma and the deep sense of shame or guilt that went with it? Was stigma particularly worse for you because, for instance, you are a woman or member of a community which has strong condemnation of addiction?

We’d love to hear from you. A short piece of writing maybe, using a pen name if you like. Or a long piece. Would you be prepared to take part in a Zoom session to discuss various aspects of gambling stigma? In all cases we will respect requests for strict anonymity.

Sharing your story will help others immediately to see that they are not at all alone in their feelings of isolation and any shame or guilt, that these are further intense bad feelings that come with addiction. Any ways you found to cope with stigma will also help people greatly.

If you can take part please send us your thoughts. As said, short or long – and sometime one or two sentences can be powerful. Please indicate whether you’d be prepared to consider taking part in a Zoom event.

We’re also very keen to hear from organisations working in the gambling field which have experience of how damaging stigma is to people they work with.

Please respond by email to

themachinezone@planetmail.net

or DM us on our twitter handle, @themachinezone.

Get in touch too if you have any questions.

Gambling and the Attention Economy

The gambling industry does not exist in a vacuum, nor does the consumer of products. Every business seeks to grab our attention – through advertising, social media and other ways. As individuals, we are saturated by claims on our attention. Our shared psychology in the digital age is marked by fragmented impulses, by accelerated time, by an imperative ‘normality’  that works against any hope of rest or peace.

The 24/7 stream of hooks on our attention is relentless. In the case of gambling, this is supplemented by products themselves which are designed to be addictive. They offer, paradoxically, a single point of attention which is, like any addiction, the release from the never-ending pressures of time, the chaos of information.

Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the “machine zone,” in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away.

Competition for our attention is intense and part of trillion dollars budgets of digital industries. If you have never made an impulse purchase from the internet you are very much the exception. We have to acknowledge the possibility that our growing restlessness is a digitally induced dis-ease with time. What are referred to as  clinical diagnoses, attention deficit disorder or hyperactive attention deficit disorder, may be now  normalised attributes of digitized citizens (to varying extents in individuals).

In practice, we are primed by digital technology to be restless and compulsive. It is not a question of individual responsibility or strength of character. The exploitation of this primed state is the core driver of the attention economy.

 

The Problem with “Problem Gamblers”

In the bad old days,  among the cruel behaviours of teachers was to make a child sit facing a corner and wear a hat with ‘Dunce’ written on it. If that didn’t make  them learn and behave properly, a child could expect a thrashing for their irresponsible waywardness.

More progressive education renamed ‘dunces’ as ‘problem children’.

Now, of course, in more enlightened times we speak of ‘problem schools’ as the main reason for between a quarter and a fifth of school leavers being functionally illiterate after eleven years of education. It has been a great leap forward for  society to recognise that the ‘problems’ may have something to do with the education system itself.

This month (July 2020) has seen the UK government launch a ‘war on obesity’. Proposals include advertising bans, stopping two for one incentives on junk foods, public health campaigns, taxes on industry, education, more help from primary health care and so on. There are critics of all this. They say that people should be able to eat whatever they want to, they are free to make their own choices and shouldn’t have that freedom removed by the nanny state. Parents, they say, have the right to feed their children whatever they like. The fact that unhealthy, fattening food is cheap should not stop poor responsible people making sensible meals with basic nutritious items such as turnips: if they can afford widescreen televisions and smartphones , they can afford to eat well. But such is the devastating impact on health and the economy, the state is now proposing to get tough, go beyond voluntary industry actions and the good sense of consumers.

After decades of denial the tobacco industry accepted that their product was both addictive and highly detrimental to health. Stringent government action has seen a huge fall in the number of people smoking.  A total ban on advertising and marketing, removal of branding on cigarette packs along with reference to tar and nicotine content which some took to allow for a choice of ‘safer smoking’, severe annual rises in duty, a ban on smoking in public places, and the hiding from sight of tobacco products in shops. Alongside this, smoking cessation programmes are free to everybody. Individuals remain free to use tobacco if they so wish.

These days, at the tobacco counter in a shop, the tobacco products are screened from sight. (It’s worth noting that alcohol is still freely on display, but that’s a different story for now). At the front of the counter, inches from the customer are advertisements for the National Lottery and a range of scratchcards priced from £1 to £5 each. Like sweets placed at a supermarket till they make impulse purchases more likely. They’re also an indicator of how normalised respectable gambling has become. A website called casinoplay.com warns the public that ‘it can actually be quite hard to win one of the top prizes.’ It advises that to increase your chances you should buy scratchcards in bulk.

The Myth of the ‘Responsible’ v ‘Problem Gambler’

Unlike smoking and obesity, the risks associated with gambling aren’t associated with physical health (except in the many tragic cases of suicide). Gambling risks include financial ruin, turning to crime, family and relationships breakdown, mental illness. Many sources of information refer to the incidence of gamblers running into such conditions is ‘only’ 0.5% of the adult population (the same way as ‘only’ 0.5% of the the population are schizophrenic). There are other figures for children and young people, and for adults ‘at risk’ of being in the 0.5%. Data is never simple. It isn’t always available. It’s a snapshot of a previous period in time. It requires interpretation – and these interpretations differ. But if the 0.5% figure is taken as it is, given the personal suffering indicated above, plus the damage to immediate others such as family, plus societal costs is not that alone reason to give gambling damage the same weighting as a serious mental disorder such as schizophrenia? And unlike schizophrenia which, although it can be managed and treated well, in many cases very difficult to treat and manage, are not problems associated with gambling more easily attenuated using the approaches we have seen with tobacco, and beginning with junk food?

Yet it’s sometimes implied that if there are only 300,000 or so people in deep trouble because of gambling, that’s all right. They didn’t stop when the fun stopped. No one made them spend much more than they could afford: they were irresponsible. It was down to their having that much-cherished freedom to chose, but making the wrong choices. Many millions more enjoy the fun of a flutter. The appeal to the ‘millions who safely (and responsibly) enjoy a flutter’ is something of an industry catchphrase, and it needs unpicking.

Having placed the ‘problem gamblers’ into a sort of pathological ghetto, the logic goes that everybody else is a ‘responsible gambler’, enjoying a harmless flutter. This isn’t so.

In all our lives fortune rises and falls, and this is more nearly literal in the case of the regular happy flutterer. A regular bettor or gambler will win some, lose some, and for the great majority, over time will lose more than they win. Winning £25 on a £5 scratchcard won’t compensate for the many weeks of getting into debt with rent or power or council tax after buying four such cards each week. The strain on marriages and families will increase as essential money leaks into slots or online gambling. The wage packet won’t be spent on days out with the kids or new school clothes. Things will be pawned, payday loans become essential as credit is refused elsewhere and credit cards are maxed out. Loans from friends and family go unpaid. There may be catastrophic times, perhaps a threat of eviction or repossession, survived only by a hair’s width and that survival with ongoing negative financial consequences. (Sometimes, such a catastrophe can be the impetus to stop gambling). Anxiety, depression, arguments may go with the territory. The danger of becoming one of the statistics in that ‘problem gambler’ ghetto may increase. As it is, there are many whose quality of life is negatively affected by gambling, and they don’t show up in the statistics.

Now obviously, this is painting a bleak picture. Not everybody who enjoys a doughnut or two will incur an obesity-related illness. Most people do spend money responsibly and can enjoy a harmless flutter. There is, of course, even for them a risk of going beyond the harmless flutter. Even somebody new to betting and gambling can (not will) spiral down to dangerous levels.

What’s needed is research into the ‘twilight zone’ of gambling-induced harms. This is an area which has to involve personal testimonies of experience over time. It’s especially important in relation to young people who have been nurtured in a normalised gambling environment. It may lead to a more nuanced understanding of the scale and nature of gambling harms than that offered by dominant narratives of ‘problem gamblers’ versus the rest of us.

 

‘Personal Responsibility’ and Addiction

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 withdrawal 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 seen 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 arificial 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 in attenuating it.

 

One Last Spin: Update

We’ve suspended filming for One Last Spin for now. This is in common with most but essential working as Coronavirus continues. Planned interviews with people in different parts of the UK will be rearranged.

The time won’t be wasted as it will afford us an ongoing opportunity to research subject matter. We’ve taken note of an increased emphasis by campaigners and academics upon the supply side of gambling, including product design. This has been a focus of research for some experts for many years, and something that often lone voices of ‘ordinary’ people have been expressing for a very long time. There are now organisations such as Gamvisory, a user-level group which seeks to involve ‘experts by experience’ in representing a vitally important but to date virtually absent role in influencing gambling policy.

Similarly, the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland are taking the lead in the three years National Strategy to Reduce Gambling Harms which will take a public health and population approach which ‘will put the voice of lived experience at the heart of the process.’ In fact, today an event to discuss ways forward of such involvement had to be postponed (and some of our potential interviewees were thereby unavailable).

One Last Spin will add to the growing media of ‘experts by experience’. For instance, check out the videos at Gambling with Lives, a wonderful yet tragically based user-led organisation discussing bereavement of those who have lost loved ones through gambling suicide.

It’s encouraging too to see the interaction going on between academics and the people whose voices matter so much and have been often unheard. As in all generalisations this hides the truth that many UK politicians and academics have long met with individuals badly hurt, sometimes ruined, by contemporary gambling.

One such researcher is Professor Rebecca Cassidy, whose fieldwork included working in a bookies as a cashier. Her recent book, Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling is a gem. We have written a short review of it here. It covers many areas of gambling but one thing that stands out for us is her attention to the paucity of much gambling research and the need to move towards qualitative research involving the neglected voices at the heart of the matter.

It’s in this sort of spirit that One Last Spin is being made.

 

 

Busy, Busy

Our documentary is coming along nicely. A fair bit of pre-production done and a few weeks before we start filming.

After many delays it’s looking like there is a good chance we can get our drama piece about digital gambling into Barlinnie Prison. Yup! We’re trying to get into prison!

Martin’s been especially busy adding to his already great network of contacts, including a trip to Westminster last week and meeting up socially with Gambling with Lives / The Big Step who completed the long walk from Reading FC to Wembley. Check out the Gambling with Lives website.

Grassroots campaigns are driven by the dreadful suffering caused by some aspects of the gambling industry. Others, who have no personal experience of gambling, are joining them as awareness grows. Politicians from all sides, academics, addiction workers, psychologists and the media are raising their voices all over the world.

Nobody who hasn’t known it can presume to imagine the pain of losing a loved one to suicide brought on by gambling. A countless number have had life ruined by less tragic losses. It’s a public health issue that should have far more awareness and treatment facilities, but it must begin with prevention.

one last spin

Our present project is the production of a high-quality documentary about issues around gambling in the world today. A highly professional and experienced production team is currently engaged in research and planning. The film will centre around the gambling life of Martin Paterson who many of you will recognise as one of the most vocal campaigners demanding urgent and radical reforms to the gambling industry. We’ll also hear from other campaigners and people whose lives have been seriously affected by digital gambling devices. Adding their voices will be academics who specialise in gambling research. There is a new page on this site for the documentary, and we’ll be posting regular updates.

 

 

Addiction and Society

The worldwide misery caused by addiction is immense, striking millions of people. Not only the ‘addict’ but those close to them are devestated. In addition, there are huge economic costs to society and billion pounds costs from crime.

Also, beyond the identification of the most extreme forms of addiction, millions more are affected by less intense effects (including those on a ‘slippery slope’). For example, there is a tremendous toll on those who drink too much without being recognised as ‘addicts’. One unlucky bet from a regular gambler could result in financial ruin and its implications.

For those who seek recovery there are many sources of help (and it is worth remembering that many recover without intervention). Some succeed, some succeed partially, some die. In the wider social and political, medical and support spheres, ‘addiction’ continues to be a central focus of debate and research.

It is generally recognised that more needs to be done. There are insufficient facilities that provide recovery options. Mental health services often relegate ‘addiction’ to being of less than primary concern. In society at large, while things like smoking addiction are accepted as important, the many other killers are less thought about, or thought about very differently. Often, for instance, heroin addiction is thought by many to be associated with moral and character defects. A key right-wing philosophy puts all the emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’. It is, sadly, very common to hear people say things like, ‘It’s their own fault. Nobody made them drink, take drugs, gamble etc.’

Anybody who has made the barest inspection of addiction studies knows that the end result of addiction is the product of many factors. Some of these include:

  • Individual susceptibility via genetics,  peer group behaviour, mental health, poverty, cultural capital, education.
  • Availability of harmful products.
  • Multiple and complex needs including the first group above, housing, unemployment, prison and crime, lack of family support.
  • Normalisation by industry and culture as a whole of harmful behaviours.
  • Lack of support services and lack of effective strategies for many people.
  • Stigmatisation. This hangs like a dark cloud over all discussion. Even recovered addicts themselves, usually unaware of how fortunate they are not to have faced any of the difficulties mentioned above, have been known to ‘blame the addict’ (while promoting their own self-satisfied moral strength).
  • Education has been recognised as an important factor in ameliorating future harms. Alcohol and gambling industries present themselves as concerned about that high percentage of people who are addicts (and from whom most of their profits come), supporting charities and research. They stress that their products are to be enjoyed as ‘fun’ (‘When the fun stops, stop’ is the gambling industry’s slogan). In educational institutions, there have been initiatives in recent years but these tend to be very patchy and under-evaluated: some amount to little more than a few lessons, or a lecture.
  • Advertising, especially for football gambling, has come in for criticism and many argue that it should go the way of tobacco advertising. Promotion by famous paid sports personalities has also been criticised especially for its effect on young people.
  • While the psychology of addiction is extremely complex, it is fairly simple to understand why so many people turn to drugs (and, remember, alcohol is a hard drug) to alleviate misery, to numb the pain. While it’s not surprising that this connection is found strongly in people who have the least going for them, it’s very important to remember that there are many varieties of psychic suffering, and addiction curses many high up on the social pecking order.
  • There is an increasing worry that something in culture and society is causing a stark rise in unhappiness and mental health disorders. Such conditions are breeding grounds for addiction. Many people are ‘self-medicating’ to escape misery, depression and anxiety.

I’ve purposely included in the above some value judgments because these are, like stigma, very common within any discussion of addiction. If you believe that the scourge of addiction and its devestating effects on millions of people can best be addressed by emphasising the responsibility of individuals to change their ways, I’d only disagree 90%. There is, and should be, a role for personal responsibilty, powerless people have to be given that power. But along with that, and along with intense attention to recovery, we need to address as well as possible the factors which encourage addiction in the first place. It’s not one or the other, that would be silly. Neither is it rocket science. If society regulates our food and medicines, the air we breathe, health and safety, then we can ask whether the regulatory frameworks in place for alcohol and gambling are adequate.

It’s not a question of banning or being anti-industry or anti-anything. Regulation is not a very exciting word but it’s crucial. There is a growing movement, for instance, including police officers and politicians, to legalise and regulate street drugs. Such a policy has been found to lessen drugs harm in countries like Portugal. But that’s a different story, and mentioned here only to throw in an other factor to what should be an ongoing debate.