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A perfect storm: ADF veterans and gambling harm

Dr Olivia Metcalf

Dr Olivia Metcalf, photo by Leith Hillard

By Maryrose Cuskelly

It takes a lot to shock a scientist, according to Dr Olivia Metcalf, but she admits to being at times alarmed by the analysis of data gathered as part of the Transition and Wellbeing Research Programme. Commissioned by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, this was part of the most comprehensive study undertaken in Australia on the impact of transitioning out of the military.

The resulting Foundation-funded research, Gambling problems, risk factors, and implications in Australian veterans, found that one in five veterans who experienced gambling harm had made a suicide plan or attempt, a statistic Dr Metcalf characterises as ‘very alarming’.

A risk to wellbeing

Previously, Dr Metcalf says, research regarding Australian Defence Force (ADF) veterans and the effects of trauma on their mental health tended to be concerned with issues other than gambling. Yet gambling harm is experienced by veterans at comparable rates to other well-studied risks to their wellbeing.

‘The focus tended to be on PTSD, alcohol use, depression, suicidality and other issues that are well-researched and known problems for some [miliary veterans],’ she says.

‘But our suspicion was … that veterans, like other populations [with high rates of trauma exposure], are vulnerable to the development of gambling problems for specific reasons … and that’s the case.’

I feel we’ve possibly been neglecting this population…’
Dr Metcalf

‘As a scientist, when I uncover new findings, there’s usually an excitement about that. But I have mixed feelings about these findings. I feel we’ve possibly been neglecting this population [of ADF veterans suffering gambling harm] because we haven’t really had this issue on our radar.’

Pride in our defence forces

With Australian national identity and pride linked strongly to our defence forces, she suspects this sense of failure would be shared by many Australians if they became aware of the extent and severity of gambling harm among veterans.

The study reveals that the veterans most vulnerable to gambling harm are younger males who’ve been medically discharged from the ADF. Worryingly, only two per cent of veterans experiencing problems with gambling seek help.

‘We have high prevalence rates, really significant harm, and very low rates of help-seeking,’ Dr Metcalf says. ‘It’s a perfect storm.

‘We saw high rates of gambling problems among veterans within one year of leaving the military. That tells us – and we have evidence from folk still serving – that gambling problems are likely developing during military service.’

‘We have … really significant harm and very low rates of help-seeking.’
Dr Metcalf

This contrasts with other mental health issues affecting veterans, she says.

‘It’s important to note that if you’re in the defence force, you have a lower risk of suicide and generally better mental health because of what’s called “the healthy soldier effect” [as mental health issues generally prevent people from ever joining the military].

‘Many veterans transition out of the military well. But what we see for some is an escalation of PTSD, depression and alcohol abuse, and these rates increase with more time since leaving. What is interesting is that the pattern isn’t being shown necessarily in gambling problems. It looks like something that is forming during service.’

Research attracting attention

Given the sobering and at times shocking revelations of the report, Dr Metcalf is hopeful that its findings will attract support for additional research into the impact of gambling on veterans’ mental health.

‘I would like to see more well-considered policy that clearly and actively addresses the environment that is contributing to gambling harm,’ she continues.

‘I’m pleased that we’ve seen this data, and that it’s been given attention. So many sectors from government and the community have seen or heard about it and said, “We need to do more.”’

As for the research being ‘given attention’, RSL Tasmania Chief Executive John Hardy cited the research – named here as Melbourne University research, Dr Metcalf’s employer – as supporting evidence in his organisation’s decision to ban pokies in Tasmania.

‘We have a culture and an availability of gambling that is problematic.’
Dr Metcalf

Dr Metcalf hopes that the current parliamentary inquiry into online gambling and its impacts on those experiencing gambling harm, to which she and her colleagues have made a submission, will recommend measures that address broader environmental factors, such as exposure to gambling advertising and gambling products.

‘We have a culture and an availability of gambling that is problematic,’ she says.

‘When we consider smoking and other types of public health challenges, we don’t think about it solely in terms of what the individual needs to do to prevent harm. We also talk about what needs to be done at the environmental level.

‘Veterans are just one trauma-affected population and there are many trauma-affected populations in the Australian community who are vulnerable.’

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