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Prisoners of shame no more

Man in his 30s wearing casual blue winter clothing stands on the footpath of a narrow Melbourne street and smiles at the camera.

Tien Truong, photo: Leith Hillard

by Lisa Clausen

When he first began counselling Australian-Vietnamese women in jail last year, Tien Truong was struck by the crushing secrecy of their stories.

All of the inmates he met had debts from gambling. Some had told only a few relatives about their struggles; others had confided in no-one, even managing to conceal their custodial sentences from family and friends. None had ever sought professional help for their gambling before ending up behind bars. The shame, they told Tien, had been overwhelming.

Protecting their reputation

As project coordinator for Gambler’s Help at the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association (AVWA) in Melbourne, Tien knows better than most that while gambling is a widespread, socially acceptable pastime across his community, talking about the associated harms isn’t. The emphasis in Vietnamese culture on reputation means such troubles are usually hidden.

‘Vietnamese people are scared that people will think badly of them if they go and see a counsellor,’ says Tien. ‘They don’t see it’s something that could help them.’

The crimes they’ve committed have been to pay off crippling gambling debts.

Since joining the AVWA last year, this dynamic counsellor has begun challenging long-held community beliefs. He has run information sessions in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Melbourne’s women-only, maximum-security jail, leading to growing numbers of prisoners receiving gambling counselling for the first time.

All the prisoners Tien currently sees are serving sentences for drug-related offences, yet none use drugs themselves. The crimes they’ve committed have been to pay off crippling gambling debts they were too scared or humiliated to reveal.

Losing the trust of family and friends

In many cases, these women have lost the trust of family and friends after borrowing money for their ‘business’ or taking out high-interest loans while chasing losses.

Too often they quickly found themselves under unbearable pressure, gambling increasing amounts in an attempt to fund interest repayments owed to loan sharks totalling hundreds or even thousands of dollars a week.

‘They start harassing them using physical intimidation, assaults and threats – “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to burn your house down, I’m going to kidnap your daughter”,’ continues Tien.

‘They start harassing them using physical intimidation, assaults and threats.’ - Tien Truong, Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association

Across the wider Australian-Vietnamese community, Tien says ambivalent attitudes towards counselling must change to stop other lives spiralling out of control.

‘But there’s not even a word for “counsellor” in Vietnamese,’ he says. Indeed Tien’s role at AVWA is described as a ‘gambling consultant’.

What’s more, says Tien, ‘there’s this misconception that once you get addicted, it’s “in your blood”. When you ask many gamblers if they want to reduce their gambling, a lot of them will say, “No, it’s in my blood. I’ve been doing it for 20 years”. They can’t see how they can push through it.’

Complicating the challenge is the reluctance among some older Australian-Vietnamese to acknowledge and treat underlying mental health issues. Mental health literacy in this older age group is, however, of particular importance.

A background of trauma

‘Coming from a background of leaving a war-torn country, a lot of them might have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety, but they think that’s just the way life is,’ continues Tien. ‘They don’t think, “I can get help”.

‘For this generation, gambling is often about escapism. The dream of a jackpot is so seductive to the mindset of scarcity.’

By the time they end up in jail, though, they are painfully aware they need help.

‘Sometimes there’s this relief and mental clarity and a lot of them say, “I was so stupid. How could I have done this”,’ he says. ‘They have a lot of regret over where they are now.’

By the time they end up in jail, though, they are painfully aware they need help.

With the assistance of Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation funding, Tien plans to expand AVWA’s services into men’s jails.

Building social networks

He’s passionate about building strong social networks to replace the allure of gambling venues, hoping to support former inmates when they return to the community and encourage international students to recognise their vulnerability to gambling harm.

In the Braybrook area in Melbourne’s west, a soon-to-be-established social group of former gamblers will be open to those whose gambling is sliding out of control but who aren’t yet ready to access formal help.

‘A lot of Vietnamese feel isolated and there are very few avenues for them to make friends,’ he says. ‘You can address the gambling all you want but, given the underlying issues of social isolation, I think trying to promote more community connectedness is the solution.’

The Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association was set up in 1983, and has offices in Braybrook, Richmond and Springvale. Many of its services, counselling programs and activities are open to men as well as women.