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Study Finds Severity In Gambling Behaviours And Suicidality Linked In Young Adults

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An increase in difficulties with gambling is linked to a heightened risk of suicide attempts among young adults, according to new research led by the University of Glasgow.

‘Changes in severity of problem gambling and subsequent suicide attempts: a longitudinal survey of young adults in Great Britain, 2018–20’ shows that over the course of a year, young adults (aged 16-24) who experienced an increase in severity of gambling harms were 2.74 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose gambling was unchanged.

Findings have been shared in an article published by The Lancet Public Health, the world’s highest impact public health journal. The study, funded by Wellcome Trust, was led by Dr Heather Wardle, University of Glasgow, in collaboration with Sally McManus, City, University of London.

The study is important and unique because it followed the same group of young people over time, tracking changes in their gambling and suicide-related behaviours. This shows that any increase in negative experiences associated with gambling is linked with a heightened risk of suicide attempts. Gambling behaviour is dynamic and any escalation in the experience of harms, regardless of someone’s starting point, may be an important risk-factor for heightened suicidality.

Few studies have examined the relationship between gambling and suicidality, and fewer still have explored this relationship among young adults, despite there being concurrent heightened risk of both suicidality and gambling harms among those aged 16–24 years.

Young adults are likely to have a greater propensity for risk-taking behaviour, including impulsivity and engaging in sensation-seeking experimentation. Data from this study showed that whilst impulsivity, loneliness, low wellbeing, and anxiousness account for some of the association between suicidality and gambling among young adults, these things do not explain it in full.

Dr Heather Wardle said: “Suicide is a leading cause of death among young adults, especially young men. When we speak to people who have experienced severe gambling harms, many describe feeling suicidal. And yet debate continues about whether gambling disorder is a risk factor for suicidality or if this might be better explained by other things, like poor wellbeing. Our study suggests not, finding that any increase in negative experiences due to gambling among young adults can mean a greater risk of suicidality.

“For anyone feeling like this, help is available – people can and do recover from gambling harms. But more support is needed. Our study adds to a growing evidence base strengthening the argument for gambling to be recognised as a risk factor in suicide prevention plans. Gambling harms were referenced in Scotland’s Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2022-2025, but much more needs to happen for this to become embedded in national approaches and policies.”

Sir Louis Appleby is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester and Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group. He said: “This study adds to our understanding of the link between problem gambling and suicide, particularly in young people. We have seen warnings about gambling and tragic personal stories bravely told in public, but inevitably it takes longer to get the high quality evidence we need for prevention. Now, that evidence is coming through. It is timely too – the Government has announced a new national suicide prevention strategy and problem gambling is certain to feature.”

Findings from the study demonstrate the need to quickly identify those who may be experiencing greater harms and to intervene. To do this means routine and repeated screening could be embedded within primary health care, social care, and other relevant public service organisations to allow effective identification and suicide prevention activities among young adults at elevated risk.

This study also raises important questions about preferred methods for intervening with those deemed to be at risk. Although government regulatory bodies require gambling operators to perform risk analyses of customer’s data to identify those at increased risk of gambling harms, how this is subsequently carried out at a customer service level is unclear.

The study recommends that if regulators retain this requirement, all industry staff engaging in customer interactions could be required to have regular, independent, transparent, and robust suicide prevention and intervention training. As a mandatory condition of licensing, this could replicate the approach used in reforms to the financial services sector.