Home Mental Health & Well-Being Debunking the Myth of Gambling-Related Suicides in the UK

Debunking the Myth of Gambling-Related Suicides in the UK

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The claim that there is one gambling-related suicide in the UK every day, amounting to up to 496 gambling-related suicides a year, has been a focal point for anti-gambling activists. They assert that 10% of all suicides in England are linked to gambling. These figures gained significant attention after the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) published a report in January 2023, which suggested “between 117 and 496 suicides associated with problem gambling” in England.

Campaigners have widely disseminated and used these statistics to highlight the dangers of problem gambling. The report also posited that the monetised value of years of life lost to gambling-related suicides contributes significantly to the “up to” £1.77 billion annual cost of gambling to society.

Critically examining these figures reveals that their foundation is flimsy. Determining the exact number of suicides directly caused by gambling is inherently challenging. On average, gambling is mentioned in only one coroner’s report per year, suggesting an underestimation but also highlighting the difficulty in establishing a direct causal link.

OHID’s predecessor, Public Health England (PHE), relied on a Swedish study to estimate the number of gambling-related suicides in England. The Swedish study involved 2,099 hospital patients diagnosed with pathological gambling between 2005 and 2016, of whom 67 died, including 21 by suicide. The authors found that the suicide rate among these pathological gamblers was fifteen times higher than in the general Swedish population.

Using this data, PHE extrapolated the figures to England, estimating 409 gambling-related suicides annually. Anti-gambling activists eagerly adopted this estimate. When OHID succeeded PHE, it used the same methodology but provided two estimates: one based on “gambling disorder” and another on “problem gambling”, yielding figures of 117 and 496 suicides, respectively.

A closer look at the Swedish study reveals significant issues. The study population included individuals with severe mental health comorbidities. Specifically, 65% had injuries or poisoning, 60% had anxiety disorders, 51% had depression, and many had other severe conditions like substance use disorders and schizophrenia. Given this context, a 1% suicide rate is not surprising, and it is misleading to attribute these suicides solely to gambling.

The study authors themselves noted that their findings might be skewed towards a population with more severe forms of gambling disorder and higher mental health comorbidities. Despite these caveats, PHE and OHID applied the suicide rate from this high-risk group to the general population of problem gamblers in England without adjusting for other risk factors.

In a subsequent study, one of the original Swedish authors, Anna Karlsson, controlled for various risk factors and concluded that “gambling disorder did not appear to be a significant risk factor for the increase in suicide and general mortality”. This suggests that gambling disorder alone is not a major risk factor for suicide when other factors are considered.

This reassessment indicates that the extrapolated figures of gambling-related suicides in England might be grossly inflated. While it is undeniable that severe financial distress from problem gambling can lead to suicidal tendencies, attributing a significant proportion of suicides to gambling alone is overly simplistic and unsupported by rigorous statistical analysis.

The controversy surrounding these figures highlights the need for accurate and nuanced data in public health policy. It underscores the importance of considering multiple risk factors and avoiding over-reliance on studies with limited applicability to broader populations. Moving forward, public health agencies must adopt more sophisticated methodologies and transparent practices to ensure that their findings accurately reflect the complexities of issues like gambling-related harm.

The closure of Public Health England and its replacement by OHID were intended to address inefficiencies and improve focus on public health priorities. However, the persistence of questionable statistical practices suggests that further reforms are necessary to restore credibility and ensure that public health interventions are based on solid evidence.

Emily Sorensen, PhD is a researcher specialising in the intersection of gambling disorders and mental health.

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