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Cultural nuance is key to preventing gambling harm


Mary Sophou (left) from PRONIA with team members from the project 'Gambling – Secret no More', photo: Paul Jeffers

by Lisa Clausen

Step inside any one of the Greek coffee shops found on many of Melbourne’s shopping strips and you’re likely to see tables of men exchanging cards, counters and coins through a swirl of conversation. Social gambling on games like cards and backgammon, or tavli, has been woven through Greek life for generations, and brought to Australia by migrants seeking to build new lives. For many older Greek–Australians, in particular, such pastimes are precious links to their traditions and culture, and strengthen vital social connections.

But, as in the broader Australian population, for some in the Greek community gambling can take a darker turn, affecting relationships, finances and health. To open up a culturally sensitive conversation about this rarely discussed problem, particularly among older Greek–Australians, the Melbourne-based Australian Greek Welfare Society, PRONIA, conceived the project Gambling – Secret No More. The year-long project was one of 12 the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation funded in 2018 for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities across the state.

Crossing the divide

Gambling – Secret No More involved a series of gambling awareness information sessions and resources highlighting the risks of gambling harm and the culturally relevant help at hand, including PRONIA’s range of family, financial and health support services. PRONIA’s family and community services manager, Mary Sophou, says gambling has always been a divisive topic in her community because of people’s ‘love–hate relationship’ with it. ‘We know gambling harm is an issue that needs a lot of community education and awareness, and that we, as an organisation, need to advocate and take a stand against it,’ she says.

Social gambling on games like cards and backgammon, or tavli, has been woven through Greek life for generations.

While gambling has traditionally been the domain of older Greek men, Mary says services like PRONIA are facing new and difficult challenges. Younger people are flocking to online betting. Some of the thousands of migrants who have fled the economic crisis in Greece since 2014 are turning to gambling to dull the stress of resettlement. PRONIA’s busy counselling and support staff also encounter increasing numbers of older Greek women facing financial difficulties because of pokies. Their traditional responsibilities in running households mean ‘women gamblers are even more of a hidden topic – it’s even more shameful,’ says Mary.

Behind closed doors

The difficulty in talking about gambling harm was starkly revealed when Mary and her colleagues tried to tap into the influential network of Greek senior citizens clubs in the project’s two target municipalities – Whittlesea and Monash; areas with both large populations of Greek–Australian residents and heavy annual gambling losses. Not one of the more than a dozen clubs PRONIA contacted was willing to host education sessions. ‘They said they’d call back, or that their members weren’t ready,’ says Mary. ‘We were surprised by the number of knock-backs we got.’

'Women gamblers are even more of a hidden topic – it’s even more shameful.' - Mary Sophou, PRONIA

Undeterred, PRONIA approached two women-only senior citizens clubs, which hosted two major forums that were attended by the mayors of both municipalities, and where more than 100 women heard from a range of Greek-speaking experts. The bilingual setting and cultural nuances of those discussions, and of other information sessions, community activities and coverage in the local Greek media, was critical, says Mary. ‘Unless you have information that is culturally and linguistically relevant, people just tune out.’

Signs of hope

Part of the impetus for the project was the community’s poor awareness about the potential harm gambling can cause and how to tackle it. But feedback following the forums confirmed their positive effect, with more than 90 per cent of participants reporting they consequently better understood the signs of gambling harm. At one forum, a member even publicly challenged her club on why it regularly organised group outings to the casino. Mary says such conversations are hopeful signs that need long-term, multi-faceted encouragement. ‘People are starting to think about this issue so we need to capitalise on that. People need long-term consistent messaging to change their behaviour; that is the challenge we face.’

'Unless you have information that is culturally and linguistically relevant, people just tune out.' - Mary Sophou, PRONIA

Gambling – Secret No More was made possible by the Foundation’s prevention grants program for CALD communities. Last year, the program assisted projects in a range of emerging and established communities, including Cambodian, Greek, Serbian and Somali groups. Research shows that although people in CALD communities in Australia tend to gamble less than the general population, those who do are more likely to experience gambling harm and barriers to accessing help.

Janet Dore, the Foundation’s interim CEO, says the program benefited from the rich partnerships existing in CALD communities, and also saw new connections forged. ‘Being able to provide funding for projects that are run by CALD communities for CALD communities helps to break down cultural and linguistic boundaries. Many of these organisations are keen to continue to collaborate with their new partners on future prevention initiatives.’

How to get support

If you have concerns about your gambling, or are affected by someone else’s gambling, call Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858. We can arrange an interpreter for free if you need one.

Find out more about getting support.