People with a gambling problem are 15 times more likely to take their own life, according to the largest study of its kind, prompting calls for swifter action by the government to tackle betting addiction.
Academics at Lund University, Sweden, monitored more than 2,000 people with gambling disorders, finding a significantly elevated risk of suicide among participants compared with the general population over an 11-year period.
The study found that suicide rates increased 19-fold among men between the ages of 20 and 49 if they had a gambling problem and by 15 times among men and women of all ages.
The authors of the research said that while the causes of suicide were complex and likely to involve more than one factor, their work indicated gambling disorders were associated with far higher than average rates of suicide.
Campaigners said that if the same results were applied to the UK, the Swedish study would indicate around 550 suicides a year in which gambling played a part, or more than 10 per week.
“This research confirms the high number of gambling-related suicides that Gambling with Lives families brought to public attention after the deaths of our children,” said Charles and Liz Ritchie, who founded the charity after their son Jack took his own life aged 24 following a gambling addiction.
“The lack of recognition of the scale of this problem has been shocking and we call on the government to take immediate action to save lives.”
There is just one specialist problem gambling clinic in the UK, although a second is due to open in Leeds after the government promised greater funding for treatment as part of a 10-year plan for the NHS.
Former sport minister Tracey Crouch cited an estimate of two suicides linked to gambling per week when she resigned last year over a planned delay to curbs on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). That estimate is thought to be based on a much smaller 2010 study from Hong Kong, where problem gambling rates are higher than they are in Britain.
Use of the figure by politicians, including Liberal Democrat peer Lord Chadlington, has elicited criticism from analysts for free-market thinktanks opposed to tighter gambling regulation and betting industry consultants.
But the rate indicated by the study in Sweden is much larger than that of the Hong Kong research, took place over a longer period and monitored people who took their own lives as well as those who did not.
It is also based on a country with a similar prevalence of problem gambling to the UK at around 0.5% on the often-cited problem gambling severity index measurement, rising to around 1.6% when including people at moderate risk.
The Lund University report’s authors stressed that the factors in suicide are usually complex but said the study’s findings tallied with their anecdotal experience that gambling was a key element.
“To us it’s not a surprising result based on what we see and hear in the clinical setting,” said Anders Hakansson, professor of addiction medicine at Lund University and a psychiatrist in a gambling disorder unit. “The causes [of suicide] are very likely to be multi-factoral but it’s likely that some will contribute more than others.”
He said it was hard to isolate the role played by gambling, citing co-morbidity, which refers to the existence of multiple overlapping factors that may be present in subjects who take their own life.
For instance, if a subject was diagnosed with depression as well as a gambling disorder, the likelihood of suicide increased even further but the risk did not appear to rise if substance misuse was added.
He said: “It’s not difficult to argue that gambling contributes very strongly to suicidal thinking, especially when debts are so severe that suicide becomes part of the solution a person thinks about in that kind of crisis, with the feeling of what you have caused to your family members.”