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Gambler’s Help financial counsellor, Chantelle McGuinness


Chantelle McGuinness, photo: Ross Bird

by Laura Gillis

It all started with a money box. Ever since she was a little girl, Gambler’s Help financial counsellor Chantelle McGuinness has loved to save.

‘I remember my nan bought me a money box and said, “Don’t open this until it’s full”. Mum tried to get me to open it for bread money once, but I was so stubborn I wouldn’t let her!’

Family, finances and mateship – they’re recurring themes among Chantelle’s clients at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.

Chantelle took five minutes with Inside gambling to talk about the work she does within the Aboriginal community.

What is the most common form of gambling in the Aboriginal community?

Bingo is a big one. Because it’s seen as a social activity, it’s not considered ‘gambling’ by members of the community. Trying to get them to understand that it is gambling is difficult. There’s this attitude where people say, ‘It’s just bingo, what’s the harm?’.

Is it difficult to get people to open up about their finances?

It’s funny how the community views discussions about finance. They don’t like to talk about it. Some of my clients have low incomes, others earn a good wage, but sometimes the people who earn more feel an increased level of shame because the perception is they don’t have as much reason to be struggling.

What kind of tactics do you use to get them to level with you?

We don’t force them into anything. I might just use another person as an example, so it’s not perceived as a personal attack. Or I’ll make sure I schedule a follow-up appointment so I can keep tabs on their progress.

Shame is a big thing. In the Aboriginal community, six degrees of separation doesn’t apply. It’s more like two degrees. So when family members borrow money, it’s hard. Extended families can end up struggling. The ripple effect is closer than it would be in the mainstream community.

Does the strong sense of community and extended family also protect people?

The community network, or the Koori grapevine, is a good thing, but it can also have bad implications. If you lean on somebody too much, financially, it can cause arguments and lead to other stresses.

We encourage people within the community to stand their ground and not always provide monetary loans to family. There are other ways to help. Ask them what they need the money for – if it’s for food, why not have them over for dinner? It’s a social activity, it keeps people away from gambling and it solves the problem of not having money for food.

How do you start to help people work their way out of financial hardship?

We always try to get people to open up and to talk about their financial issues, such as utility usage. When they start, the majority of my clients won’t even open their bills. They have a fear of what’s inside the envelope. Shame is a contributing factor towards lack of financial control. The attitude is ‘I can’t be disconnected if I don’t read the notice’. We’re there saying, ‘Open your bills!’. It’s a lot harder to get reconnected than it is to tackle a potential disconnection.

The biggest challenge is getting our clients to change the way they think about bills, to reduce the fear. We get them used to the idea of chipping away at their debt. We also give clients tips such as turning the power switches off on devices.

Once the balance comes down, they feel less inclined to ‘chase’ money through gambling.

Shame and stigma seems to be a recurring theme. What do you think would help break down this barrier?

The Victorian Aboriginal Health Service’s structure helps. We’re a holistic service provider so there are many reasons people attend. It is rare for gamblers to come straight out and say, ‘I’m gambling, I need financial help’. Sometimes it comes up through therapeutic counselling and then the person is referred to us.

One of our counsellors had a client referred to her through a dentist. We laughed. We’re thinking, how did the dentist get this person to open up? And how did they do it with their mouth full of dental equipment?!

That’s where community comes into it. Generally, our clients have already built up relationships and trust with other Victorian Aboriginal Health Service staff and stakeholders in other services, so there’s a nice synergy there. This also shows the need for partnerships so the community has a choice of services and programs they can access to receive support around financial difficulty.

Gambling affects the entire family, not just the individual engaging in the activity!

What do you like most about your job?

Seeing people achieve their goals – that is the most rewarding thing. It might be a family holiday, a deposit on a car, making sure the kids have lunch at school every day. It might not sound like much, but for some of my clients – that’s everything. That’s everything to them.

I really enjoy working with my teammates because they inspire me to take more leadership as a young Aboriginal person. The scary part about working in this area is that the community knows me as the finance guru.