Link between gambling behaviour and suicide risk in young adults – study

An increase in difficulties with gambling is linked to a greater risk of suicide attempts among young adults, new research suggests.

The study found that over the course of a year, young adults (aged 16-24) who experienced an increase in negative experiences due to gambling – gambling harms – were 2.74 times more likely to attempt to take their own lives than those whose gambling was unchanged.

Gambling harms refer to the adverse impact on the health and wellbeing of people and their relationships.

Experts say the study is important because it followed the same group of young people over time, tracking changes in their gambling and suicide-related behaviour.

According to the researchers, any escalation in the experience of gambling harms, regardless of someone’s starting point, may be an important risk-factor for heightened suicidality – thoughts of death and suicide attempts.

Young adults are likely to have a greater propensity for risk-taking behaviour, including impulsivity and engaging in sensation-seeking experimentation, researchers say.

The study, led by Dr Heather Wardle, University of Glasgow, showed that whilst impulsivity, loneliness, low wellbeing, and anxiousness account for some of the association between suicidality and gambling among young adults, they do not explain it in full.

Dr 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.”

Sally McManus, a co-author on the study from City, University of London, said: “This study shows that interventions that reduce gambling-related harm may also have the potential to reduce levels of suicidality in society.”

Researchers say their findings suggest the need to quickly identify those who may be experiencing greater harms and to intervene.

This would need routine and repeated screening to be embedded within GP surgeries, social care, and other relevant public service organisations.

Sir Louis Appleby is professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group.

He said: “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.”

The study further raises questions about preferred methods for intervening with those deemed to be at risk.

Government regulatory bodies require gambling operators to perform risk analyses of customers’ data to identify those at increased risk of gambling harms, how this is subsequently carried 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.

The authors say that as a mandatory condition of licensing, this could replicate the approach used in reforms to the financial services sector.

Funded by Wellcome Trust, the findings are published in The Lancet Public Health.

– Anyone who needs support can call Samaritans free of charge on 116 123, email, or visit the Samaritans website.