First Steps out of Problem Gambling

Lisa Ustok &
Joanna Hughes

This title is one of a series of six "First Steps" self-help guides published by Lyon Hudson and runs to less than a hundred pages. As such, before I'd even opened the covers I had reservations about just how good it was going to be - just how can such a short, pocket sized, publication do justice to the complexities of problem gambling recovery and start concerned indivduals off in the right direction once they've realised they have a demon to deal with? I was hoping that I would be proved wrong as I got into the content.

Was I? To some degree, yes. There's a lot of solid advice there for those who are lost in their compulsive behaviour and need a steer; looking inward at their motivations for gambling, advice to do a "pros" and "cons" exercise (the pros and cons of continuing to gamble and for abstaining), to think about the impacts and costs on others, of maintaining a daily diary, of not putting yourself in the way of temptation (ie avoid places where gambling opportunities exist), to consider the prudence of continuing to hang out with friends who gamble, to set measurable goals for abstaining (a day, two days, a week, a month and so forth) etc. Chapters include: "Gambling problems in focus", "Self-assessment", "Building your motivation for change", "Setting your goal", "Involving others", "Reducing gambling", "Avoiding relapses" and "Moving forward". There are also some words written for the benefit of the non-gamblers within a family who experience the fallout of problem gambling on a regular basis. It all looks to be very solid advice and I'm certainly not qualified to take issue with anything written.

Reading through this one though I couldn't help feeling that the style of writing was a tad on the lightweight side and that the sights hadn't been set too high. Bearing in mind that it's written for an audience who have probably spent many years deeply entrenched in cycles of uncontrollable and compulsive behaviour, I fear this one just may not register too resoundly with some of them, or provide that "jolt" I would think is necessary as a catalyst for a profound change of lifestyle. First Steps out of Problem Gambling is very much focussed on a DIY approach, and as such it contains little in the way of encouragement to complement it, or follow it up, with external input; individual counselling or group therapy. Having done some further reading on the subject of problem gambling, it would appear that only a small percentage of those people who are successful in laying a gambling demon to rest do so solely through their own efforts, and most who have told their stories admitted to needing support, particularly during relapses, where they have no immediate peer or family network around them. I'm sure the two authors were aware of this when they wrote this book and so it does seem to be somewhat puzzling that this fact has been omitted. Even within the chapter "Involving others" there's nothing included around the benefits of seeking professional help and how to go about accessing it. I should say for balance that the contact details for Gamblers Anonymous, GamCare and other similar support organisations are included at the end of the book.

Although I have no experience of working in the field of problem gambling therapy and support, writing as a critic I would be inclined to describe First Steps out of Problem Gambling as a first stage read on the subject - something useful as a start point, for those who have recently realised their gambling endeavours have become problematic. If this is you I recommend that you obtain a copy, and I'm sure if you do it will be of most value if followed up by engaging with professional support services and/or regular group therapy. As a self-help guide it all seems quite sensible and ticks the OK box, but bearing in mind the target audience I suspect that using it in isolation will tend to throw up a question mark against a long term positive outcome. It all depends on the individual involved of course, but there are usually reasons why their gambling endeavours became problematic in the first place and why the problem behaviour has persisted for as long as it has?

At the time of writing, Lisa Ustok and Joanna Hughes practiced as probation officers in Gloucestershire in the UK and published First Steps out of Problem Gambling based on their extensive experience of counselling problem gamblers as part of their work.

July 2020.