Study: Young Adults With Worsening Gambling Problems Face an Elevated Risk of Suicide

A recent study by UK researchers has shed new light on the connection between problem gambling and suicide. The study found that the risk of suicide is nearly triple among young adults whose gambling problems have worsened in the past year.

The study – Changes in severity of problem gambling and subsequent suicide attempts: a longitudinal survey of young adults in Great Britain, 2018-2020 – followed a group of participants aged 16 to 24 over a one-year period.

The team found a higher number of suicide attempts among those participants reporting that they’d experienced greater harm from gambling over the study period. Specifically, those struggling with gambling were 2.74 times more likely to make such an attempt than youth whose gambling experience remained consistent.

Dr. Heather Wardle of the University of Glasgow headed the study. It received funding from the Wellcome Trust with Sally McManus, City, University of London.

The Lancet Public Health, an eminent public health journal, published the study in March.

Increase in Gambling Harms Heightens Suicide Risk

It’s well known that suicide is one possible outcome of gambling addiction. However, this study is unique in following the same group of individuals over time. It connects outcomes with a change in behavior rather than looking at participants’ habits at a single moment in time.

Its findings contribute to the body of work showing that negative gambling experiences can contribute to suicide or other self-harm.

From the research lead, Dr. Wardle:

Suicide is a leading cause of death among young adults, especially young men. When we speak to people who have experienced severe gambling harms, many describe feeling suicidal. And yet debate continues about whether gambling disorder is a risk factor for suicidality or if this might be better explained by other things, like poor wellbeing. Our study suggests not, finding that any increase in negative experiences due to gambling among young adults can mean a greater risk of suicidality.

The Emerging Adults Gambling Survey, a longitudinal study of youth 16-24 living in Great Britain, provided the study data.

Researchers found participants through YouGov’s online panel of more than one million. To be eligible, respondents had to be 16-24 and not part of any other YouGov gambling study in the past year.

Interviews were held online in two waves:

  • Wave 1: June 25 to Aug. 16, 2019
  • Wave 2: July 13 to Oct. 8, 2020

The questionnaire for each wave covered the following topics:

  • Gambling
  • Other gaming
  • Social media use
  • Health-related behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Suicide attempts

In addition, all participants who said they had gambled in the past year completed the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI). The PGSI is the standard tool psychologists use to identify and quantify gambling problems.

Early Identification Vital to Harm Reduction

Sir Louis Appleby, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester, said the study enhanced the field’s understanding of the issue and implied that it could help shape policy.

Sir Appleby is also the chair of the National Suicide Prevention and Strategy Advisory Group. He said:

This study adds to our understanding of the link between problem gambling and suicide, particularly in young people. We have seen warnings about gambling and tragic personal stories bravely told in public, but inevitably it takes longer to get the high-quality evidence we need for prevention. Now, that evidence is coming through. It is timely, too – the Government has announced a new national suicide prevention strategy, and problem gambling is certain to feature.

The findings demonstrate the importance of quickly identifying and intervening with those experiencing increasing harm. Regular screening through primary health care, social care, and other public service avenues could help identify young people whose gambling puts them at higher risk.

Effective Intervention Still an Open Question

However, the study also admits that the results raise important questions about how best to intervene.

For instance, regulated gambling operators in the UK are already required to identify customers most at risk of gambling harm. However, how that intervention plays out via customer service is unclear.

According to the study:

If regulators retain this requirement, all industry staff engaging in customer interactions could be required to have regular, independent, transparent, and robust suicide prevention and intervention training. As a mandatory condition of licensing, this could replicate the approach used in reforms to the financial services sector.

Wardle says that highlights the need for further research:

Our study adds to a growing evidence base strengthening the argument for gambling to be recognised as a risk factor in suicide prevention plans. Gambling harms were referenced in Scotland’s Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2022-2025, but much more needs to happen for this to become embedded in national approaches and policies.

Annual Survey Highlights Gambling Issues Among UK Students

A separate study, released in February, found that one in four students who gamble could be experiencing harm.

The Annual Student Gambling Survey also found that roughly half of all students say gambling has affected their university experience.

National online self-exclusion service GamStop and education charity Ygam commissioned the research from the polling company Censuswide.

Of the 2,003 students surveyed, 71% had gambled in the last 12 months. Among those who had, 24% displayed problem gambling behaviors, while another 28% showed tendencies indicating they were at moderate risk of developing a problem.

However, unlike the University of Glasgow study, only 67% of respondents were under 25. Another 22% were between 25-34, and the remaining 11% were older.

Dr. Jane Rigbye, CEO of Ygam, said:

These findings give us insight into the attitudes and behaviours of students towards gambling. Building on the data published last year, we can now see that not only are a large percentage of the student population gambling on a regular basis, many of them are doing so in a way that may cause them to experience harm.

Indeed, some of the most startling statistics showed that 48% of university gamblers gamble to make money. Gambling with the intent to profit rather than for entertainment is a well-documented risk factor for gambling harm.

Notably, only 11% reported coming out ahead in an average week.

Additionally, 45% of student gamblers were unaware of the gambling supports available through their universities.

Rigbye reached similar conclusions to Wardle:

The data further emphasizes the importance of educating our young people on the risks associated with gambling. We’re working with our partners to tour university campuses across the UK to speak to students, deliver specialist training to university staff, and to raise awareness.

It is crucial that universities engage and take this issue seriously. We aim to work closely with many more universities to ensure they can help prevent the harms and support their students when they need it.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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