Stigma may stop struggling gamblers from seeking support. According to a 2002 survey by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 82 per cent of Albertans participate in some form of gambling. Yet University of Calgary researcher Jenny Horch found that there is quite a bit of stigma or negative attitudes towards problem gamblers.
For her masters project, Horch used a construct called social distance to compare the stigma surrounding problem gambling to other stigmatized conditions. She explained that establishing social distance is done by asking a series of questions regarding a person in the target group. Questions included: would you be willing to have the person marry into your family, or have them live on the same block as you, or to work closely with someone like them?
"We compared schizophrenia, alcoholism, problem gambling and a physical health condition, cancer, and I did a control," said Horch. "Problem gamblers were stigmatized more than the control and [people with a] physical health condition."
Interested in the implications of the results, Horch has three more studies underway, including trying to understand public perception of problem gamblers and the self-stigma problem gamblers face.
"I asked university students what they thought the stereotype was," Horch explained. "The sorts of characteristics that have been coming up are things like greedy, desperate. So it's not a positive thing."
Horch explained that the end goal of her research is to reduce stigma and help people with gambling problems cope.
"People tend to avoid or delay treatment because sometimes the only way people could know that a person could have a gambling problem is when they go to get help for it," said Horch.
Self-stigma might also affect whether people seek help.
"Self-stigma is where you apply the negative attitudes to yourself, which ends up negatively affecting your self-esteem," said Horch. "You might think, 'Oh, because I've developed the condition that causes the addiction, therefore it must be my fault. I must be a bad person, I don't deserve help.' "
Although stigma has been studied in regards to other conditions, stigma towards problem gamblers is barely researched. Horch feels that this is for a few reasons, adding that gambling addiction has only been recognized in the mental health field since the 1980s.
"It's sort of a newer research area," she said. "There hasn't been the same sort of media. There's been a fair amount in the media explaining that alcohol addiction is a disease-- problem gambling is certainly less prevalent than alcohol addiction."
Although restricting access to VLTs and casinos might help problem gamblers, Horch suggested the stigma itself can only be fought through education.
"The way people have tried to reduce stigma in the past [is through] education-- explaining it's a disease problem or that it's wrong to discriminate," said Horch. "If you know someone who has a gambling problem you're less likely to have a negative attitude toward problem gamblers in general. I think one of the reasons people stigmatize is they have the idea that people with the problem are dangerous."