Let’s talk gambling
Supporting communities to know the risks
by Karen Harbutt
It is usually when she is packing up after an information session that Gambler’s Help counsellor Vera Semjonov hears of the pain and frustration of families and friends.
After a presentation in a rural town west of Melbourne, a woman approached her, crying. She told Vera of a son who is ‘gambling hard’ and how her sense of shame has left her with nowhere to turn until now.
Following a session in an outer suburb of Melbourne, a man asked Vera how he could help his friend whose wife gambles a lot. He feels powerless to stop the damage he sees coming.
Her sense of shame has left her with nowhere to turn until now.
But not everyone is ready to speak to a professional. At a session I attend, a man listening on the periphery tells me how he discovered his 12-year-old son had been dropping into a pokies venue on his way home from ethnic studies and had, inexplicably, illegally, been allowed to play the machines.
‘For my son, it started too early. I’m working night shift and I can’t have proper control of him and he’d go in (to the pokies venue) all the time,’ the father reveals.
The family moved to another area, but 30 years later, every member has been affected by the personal and financial harm that continued to flow from that first encounter.
‘I can’t stop him,’ the man says. ‘I tell him it’s no good and then he never comes to see me. He’s still working, but he feels guilty because I’ve helped him, his sister’s helped him, his mother’s helped him and he still has nothing.’
With gambling, every family member can be affected
As a gambling counsellor of 21 years, Vera has heard many stories while guiding people towards healthy relationships and improved financial security.
She is uniquely qualified to collaborate with the Serbian Community Association of Australia to deliver 10 information sessions about gambling harm and the support services available. She emigrated from Yugoslavia during the height of the ethnic conflict in 1994 and speaks several Balkan languages.
The information sessions are part of one of 12 projects funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation to raise awareness within culturally and linguistically diverse communities about the risks of gambling and the benefits of seeking help.
More than 17,000 people in Victoria speak Serbian at home. As well as the information sessions, the Serbian Community Association of Australia is using Serbian media to discuss the issues, developing Serbian language resources and offering alternative social activities for community members in the local government areas of Dandenong, Casey, Brimbank, Darebin, Whittlesea, Melton and Frankston.
‘He’s still working, but he feels guilty because I’ve helped him, his sister’s helped him, his mother’s helped him and he still has nothing.’ -Serbian father
The association’s project manager, Marina Celebic, says working with families and pensioner groups alerted her to the issues.
‘Every family member can be affected,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard families talk about people in their 40s and 50s with gambling problems. They don’t have money and they’re going back home to live and asking for it, so the responsibility falls back on their ageing parents. In some cases, they take on the care of grandchildren as well.’
Getting support for gambling harm is a new concept
Vera says there is a particular vulnerability to gambling harm within culturally and linguistically diverse communities living in Australia. This is supported by a growing body of research, which shows that while members of these communities are less likely to gamble overall, those who do gamble are at higher risk of developing problems than the general population. Stress relating to migration can contribute to this risk.
According to Vera, those most vulnerable to gambling harm in the Serbian community are migrants who came to Australia with virtually nothing, found work in factories and construction because they had little time to learn English, and socialised in clubs offering cheap meals and pokies.
‘They think they should try new things – try Vegemite, try gambling, go see a game of footy.’ - Vera Semjonov
‘Gambling was promoted as fun and it became an easy way to avoid dealing with the trauma, grief and losses experienced in the Balkan War of the ’90s,’ she says.
‘Before the war, gambling in Serbia wasn’t legal. (When immigrants) come to this country, they find it’s part of the culture and they think they should try new things – try Vegemite, try gambling, go see a game of footy.’
She says many immigrants also experience pressure to make the most of the opportunity they have been given for a better life.
‘You have to do well; you have to support your family here and your family back home. You can imagine it (experiencing a gambling win). With beginner’s luck, you might win $50 or $1000 and you think that this really is the lucky country.
‘If you have no knowledge of gambling harm, people develop a problem more easily.’
‘Most Serbian people aren’t familiar with the concept of counselling.’ - Vera Semjonov
Many who attend Vera’s presentations are surprised to hear that:
- for every one person experiencing severe gambling harm, there may be up to six others affected
- Gambler’s Help counselling is also available to family and friends
- services are confidential, free and available 24/7.
‘Most Serbian people aren’t familiar with the concept of counselling,’ Vera says. ‘It’s even hard to translate the word. That’s why these sessions are priceless, because we can normalise the need for help and explain how professional counselling creates a safe space.’
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.