The Functional Definition of Gambling Harm


Whether it is buying a Lotto ticket or placing a bet on a sporting event, gambling involves taking some kind of risk in the hope of winning something else of value. Gambling is also often a social activity, involving friends or family members. It is a form of entertainment, and is a popular pastime in many countries. However, it can also be addictive and have serious consequences.

Research has shown that gambling can lead to mental health problems and increase the risks of financial distress. Some people develop a serious problem called pathological gambling. Symptoms may start in adolescence or later in adulthood, and can include feelings of helplessness, guilt, or depression. Pathological gambling can have a profoundly negative impact on individuals, families, and communities.

Many public health approaches to gambling make reference to harm minimisation, but this concept remains elusive due to lack of: a consistent definition of gambling related harm; a conceptualisation of the breadth and experience of harm; and an appropriate means of measuring harm.

A comprehensive understanding of gambling related harm requires a holistic view that goes beyond traditional categorisations of behaviour, clinical diagnosis and risk factors. In order to achieve this, the functional definition of harm has been developed. Unlike previous classifications of harm, this definition focuses on outcomes, rather than on the underlying causes of the harmful behaviour and the associated symptoms. It also recognises that harms can occur at any point in a person’s engagement with gambling, from the moment they engage through to legacy and intergenerational harms.

This approach to the definition of harm is consistent with the World Health Organisation’s definition of health and recognises that harms experienced in relation to gambling are often complex and multifaceted. Initially, six different thematic classifications of harm were identified: financial harms; harms to relationships; harms to health; impact on work, study or economic activities; and harms in other domains (e.g., criminal acts). Additional analysis of the data relating to CALD groups and indigenous populations resulted in the identification of a seventh classification of harm: cultural harms.

Using a broad range of qualitative methods, including focus groups and interviews with people who gamble and those affected by their gambling, this research sought to understand the nature and extent of harms caused by gambling. In-person focus groups and semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with participants who self-identified as either a person who gambles or an affected other. The interviews lasted from twenty to sixty minutes and participants were compensated for their time with a store voucher. The research involved a total of 25 people. Approximately half of the sample identified themselves as both a person who gambles and an affected other. Almost all of the harms reported by those interviewed were financial in nature. However, other harms were reported as well. In particular, there was a high level of co-occurrence between pathological gambling and depressive mood symptoms. The majority of the reported harms occurred in the home setting.

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