Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Making online gambling a safer bet for people with a mental health problem

15 July 2020

Today we’ve launched our new paper, A Safer Bet? which is the first in a series exploring a range of harms people with a mental health problem can face when going online. This report looks at the levels of harm people with mental health problems can experience when gambling online. We found that mental health problems can impact the reasons we gamble, whether we stay in control and our ability to cut down. We also found that elements of the online gambling environment can make these problems worse — and leave people with mental health problems at risk of harm.

When the ‘fun’ stops

For many, online gambling can be an enjoyable activity but for some of us, there is a significant risk of harm. Struggling to stay in control of online gambling can have a devastating impact on our finances, our mental health and our relationships.

When we surveyed our Research Community, we found a quarter (24%) of respondents had experienced financial problems as a result of gambling online. People with a mental health problem are already more likely to be in a financially precarious situation and struggling to stay in control of online gambling can lead to people draining their savings and falling into debt problems.  

“The addiction to load money then use it to bet, is like a hit of cocaine. Wasted hundreds of pounds and missed payments,” – Expert by experience

We also found that over a third (36%) of Research Community respondents have become stressed or anxious because of gambling online. Gambling problems are highly stigmatised and struggling to stay in control of online gambling can plunge people into depression and drive feelings of hopelessness, sometimes with fatal consequences. 

“Gambling online makes my stress levels and anxiety worse. Even when I win it doesn’t really make me happy but I can’t stop the urge to play” – Expert by experience

Stacking the deck

Sometimes the symptoms of mental health problems can lead us to gamble online for the wrong reasons. We heard from some Research Community members who felt that online gambling could offer an escape during difficult periods of mental health, which means that people are gambling while they are particularly vulnerable to harm.

Adverts can play a key role in pulling people into online gambling. Many people with a mental health problem feel overwhelmed by advertising – more than eight in ten (85%) Research Community respondents felt it was impossible to avoid seeing online gambling adverts. It can be difficult to resist gambling adverts during periods of poor mental health and online gambling is always available, making it possible to gamble even when you can’t get out of bed. 

“I find it really hard to resist the pop up adverts for gambling online. It’s really tempting to click and have a go.” – Expert by experience

Mental health problems can also make it difficult to stay in control of online gambling. Common symptoms like increased impulsivity can form a toxic relationship with aspects of the online gambling environment. The speed and ease of depositing online means that people can bet large sums during periods of ill health. 

Four in ten (40%) online gamblers who have experienced mental health problems say it doesn’t feel like they’re spending real money when they gamble online. This feeling can contribute to riskier playing behaviour which in turn can cause lasting financial damage. 

“It’s too easy to lose your money, because you’re only pressing [a] button, you don’t actually have the cash in your hand.” – Expert by experience

A safer bet

As part of this report, we worked with our Research Community to develop solutions that could make online gambling a safer environment for those of us with a mental health problem. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to people spending more time online and is set to have long term impacts on people’s finances and mental health. We are therefore calling on gambling firms to suspend advertising and marketing for as long as social distancing measures are in place. 

We also want to see gambling regulation improved to ensure player safety across online gambling markets through safe limits for all customers, and to place more responsibility on firms to identify signs of vulnerability and intervene early. 

Finally, the report sets out crucial steps that online advertising providers, internet service providers and financial service providers can take to reduce online gambling harm.