Online treatment for problem gambling focus of nation-wide study

Elisabeth Dowson
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Years ago, gambling was somewhat morally questionable and in some places illegal. Today it’s universally promoted as a recreational activity, and for most people it is. For others, there are life-altering consequences from their habitual involvement. The Gambling Self-recovery Study uses Internet-based interventions to aid problem gamblers in overcoming their addictions.

Canada has a 25-year history as a world leader in terms of making gambling accessible to the public and promoting gambling as a leisure activity. Now that gambling is offered on the Internet, Dr. David Hodgins, Professor and Head, Dept. of Psychology, University of Calgary, said it seems only fair that support for people who are trying not to gamble should also be available online.

“The criteria are that they’re not involved in treatment, so people who are already going to see a therapist or going to Gamblers Anonymous or something aren’t the people that we’re targeting.

“We’re looking for people who aren’t doing something else, and who are willing to let us stay in touch with them for a year and periodically give them a phone call to get an update on how they’re making out.”

The online Gambling Self-recovery Study has its foundation in two related studies overseen by Hodgins regarding pathological gamblers who overcame their gambling addictions on their own.

“We have kind of been doing work in the area of recovering from gambling problems for a number of years. One of our starting points was to actually track down people who had recovered from gambling problems to kind of get from their perspective what it took, what their experience was.

“What we discovered was that there were a lot of people that had recovered without going to formal treatment programs, and we were curious about that, so we asked them why, and what the barriers were.

“We were expecting that they would tell us things like, there wasn’t any treatment available or there was a cost to it, they had to take time off work, or childcare was an issue. Although some of that was true, the overwhelming reason that people gave us was that they really believed that they didn’t have to go to treatment. They believed that they could do it on their own.”

Hodgins’ team did some phone interviews with gamblers to talk to them about their problem and their motivations for wanting to change, and then sent them a self-help workbook through the mail.

“We followed them, in one study for two years, in another study for one year, and we found that people had a good amount of success using the materials and making changes on their own with these supports.”

Surprisingly, self-recovery is the most common way people overcome addictions, Hodgins noted.

“The most common way that people overcome smoking, for example, is to quit on their own. Even things like drinking, the most common pathway to recovery is people who make a decision and do it on their own.

“The other interesting thing with these people that we interviewed was that although they had done it on their own, they described on average they’d had pretty serious problems for five or six years before they made the change.”

The question that evolved from those two related studies was whether there was a way to short-circuit the self-recovery process with a discreet online program that could motivate and empower problem gamblers to initiate change sooner rather than later, sidestepping some of the complex problems that result from prolonged gambling.

“Only one in ten people with gambling problems actually go to treatment. There’s a lot of people out there that have a problem who aren’t wanting to go to treatment, and can we do something that might help them, give them some tools that might help them initiate this process earlier and be more successful?

“This is now the new version of it. We’re trying to see whether the same kind of information provided online can be equally helpful.”

The program uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy but is completely self-directed.

“It’s like a cafeteria kind of menu with different ideas and strategies for people and they can go in and use it, then go back to the website, and so forth.

“Because it’s a research project, we’ll be phoning people and talking to them and staying in contact with them to find out how useful they’re finding the materials and then whether they make any changes in their gambling.”

Hodgins said the workbook is very basic, practical and focused on strategies that have proven to be successful.

“We want to make it very accessible and practical. There are sections where people are encouraged to think about their own situation and to try to understand what drives their involvement, what their motivations are to gamble and to want to change it, as a way of getting them to be motivated to change.

“We do an interview with them over the phone just to ensure that they’re eligible and get the right information and then we give them access to the website and go from there.”

Any problem gambler living in Canada is eligible to participate. To volunteer for the study, visit and read through the introduction. If you feel you meet the criteria, email or phone toll free 1-877-437-3777.

Organizations: University of Calgary

Geographic location: Canada, Calgary

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