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Re-making meaning: social connection after gambling harm

Photo of four smiling middle-aged women in a pub environment, three sitting at a table and one standing behind them.

Gabi Byrne (standing) with three members of The Daredevils at a recent bushfire benefit at the Coburg RSL

by Leith Hillard

The insights gleaned from four years of wrestling with the pokies ‘beast’ – and then freeing herself from it – unleashed a power of work from Gabriele Byrne. She wrote a book, Free yourself program. She set up a not-for-profit to run social groups that provided leisure substitutions to gambling for more than 200 people over seven years. And all this experience and knowledge formed the basis of her PhD thesis, ‘Targeting problem gambling relapse risk factors: lack of social connectedness and leisure substitution’.

Introducing Gambler’s Help senior adviser, the newly minted Dr Gabi Byrne.

‘There are so many reasons people gamble,’ says Gabi. ‘The three factors for me were: having a well-paying job I hated; having what I call “old-age panic syndrome”, seeing wrinkles and not being able to run around in the same way anymore; and a terrible feeling of, “Is this all there is?”’

Social isolation and gambling harm

A combination of social, psychological and environmental factors, emotional stress, trauma and isolation can be part of the gambling harm brew. The isolation can become a vicious cycle, with people further distancing themselves from friends and family out of shame or embarrassment.

But how do those who do seek help for their gambling behaviour fill the gambling-size hole in their lives, especially in the early days of recovery?

‘I believe social connection and leisure substitution are the key to preventing a relapse into gambling.’ - Dr Gabriele Byrne

As Gabi says in her book, ‘I went to psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and a hypnotherapist … but nobody could give me anything to do when I left the counsellor’s office and went past four pokies venues.

‘Relapse in gambling and dropping out of treatment is very common, with the rate thought to be about 70 per cent. I started up the (Re)making Meaning social inclusion programs in 2009 because I believe social connection and leisure substitution are the key to preventing a relapse into gambling.’

Participants came to the 11 programs through Gambler’s Help services. About 60 per cent across seven years were women, the majority aged 50 to 75. They were generally past the contemplation, preparation and action phases of behaviour change and into the maintenance phase: committed to maintaining their changed behaviour, having achieved the desired outcome either to stop or control their gambling for six months.

Maintaining behaviour change

‘Even though six months is a great achievement,’ continues Gabi, ‘this stage is one of the most difficult. Most gambling help programs and interventions stop before this point, so counselling may only achieve part of the work.

‘We took our early group participants away for an overnight stay. There were serious talks about coping with stress, but there was also gentle exercise, singing, dancing, people teaching circus skills, all led by professionals who created a safe and encouraging space.

‘It’s well documented that movement and singing improve mental health and wellbeing. Something as simple as engaging, among others, with their physical and creative selves in a mindful way was new to many of them. Some reluctant participants started full of angst, but they had fun. Fun! They were laughing again, and laughter is contagious and helps build a feeling of community.’

Group members continued to meet over 10 to 12 weeks at venues such as the pokies-free Coburg RSL, for activities ranging from concerts, cooking, gardening and arts and craft lessons to educational talks about diet, goal setting and brain chemistry in the grip of addiction.

‘They were laughing again, and laughter is contagious and helps build a feeling of community.’ - Dr Gabriele Byrne

‘I phoned anyone who missed a session to offer a lift the following week,’ says Gabi. ‘I stayed in touch with all their Gambler’s Help counsellors, but if anyone relapsed, we didn’t focus on it. No one was excluded. Our emphasis was on life skills and re-making meaning in their lives.

‘I set up meetings at Neighbourhood Houses because I thought it was important to integrate into social venues already out there. Participants could think about joining one of the pottery classes or taking a water aerobics class at the pool. I didn’t want them to be isolated people in isolated groups, but part of the mainstream.’

A change in identity

An early finding was that three months wasn’t long enough for changed habits to be established, practised and maintained. In this stage, it’s vital to focus on learning new skills. That’s where the second stage of the program kicked in with previous participants returning as volunteers in subsequent programs.

‘People volunteered because they didn’t want to leave the group,’ says Gabi. ‘They often found that recovery took longer than they expected. The first time around, their exclusive focus had been on themselves and their own recovery, but when they volunteered, their focus shifted to being there for others.

‘They’d come to understand that there was more to them than their previous behaviour. They trusted in the effectiveness of the program and that made them ready and willing to give back. They brought along a new confidence. And as they encouraged new participants to join in more fully, the classes and workshops had greater impact.

‘The volunteer aspect became the deep foundation for long-term change and recovery; the notion of “putting back in for what I have received”.’

‘The volunteer aspect became the deep foundation for long-term change and recovery.’ - Dr Gabriele Byrne

Social connection rebuilt meaning in people’s lives, enabling them to focus on the future. For Bill Veerman, that means keeping up with regular gym visits six years after Gabi negotiated cut-price memberships for program members. For the women in the Awesome Foursome, it means regular weekend getaways. And to all the program participants who still meet once a month, it means being part of a group called The Daredevils.

Who dares, wins, perhaps.