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What is Stigma?
Stigma is a social phenomenon where certain characteristics, qualities or features of an identifiable group are regarded in a strongly negative light. As a consequence, stigmatisation can operate in a discriminatory way, create increased isolation, punish individuals further and lead to increased levels of harm. This article discusses some of the consequences of the stigma that people with gambling harm may experience before explaining how language can be used to remove stigmatisation.
How does stigma affect people with gambling harm?
It is reported that stigma hinders or prevents treatment for individuals suffering from substance abuse and problem gambling (Yang, Wong, Grivel and Hasin, 2017). Stigma can lead to policymakers underfunding necessary treatment programmes. Equally, stigma can dissuade individuals from speaking openly. If people who have a gambling disorder experience less stigma, they may feel more able to ask for help and take steps towards recovery. Studies have shown that people who suffer from gambling harm experience anxiety over how their disorder might be perceived and the potential negative consequences accompanying this. Because of this anxiety, other less healthy coping mechanisms are adopted, such as hiding and cognitive distancing (Dąbrowska and Wieczorek, 2020).
The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation make a distinction between self-stigma and public stigma. The former refers to stigma from the point of view of people with a gambling disorder and how they perceive themselves. The latter describes the point of view of others, perceiving individuals with a gambling disorder. Stigmatising beliefs can lead to people who gamble compulsively experiencing greater difficulties and further harm, such as increased self-blame and intensified feelings of guilt. Moreover, individuals with problem gambling experience high levels of fear regarding how others perceive them, despite experiences of direct discriminatory behaviours being relatively low (Hing, Nuske, Gainsbury and Russell, 2015).
Why is some language stigmatising?
It is important to think about why certain language is stigmatising. The choice of certain language and phrases over others can have far-reaching implications for the way in which topics, such as gambling harm, are discussed. Whether or not something is stigmatising often comes down to how the topic is framed. Subtle differences in the words we use, often chosen unconsciously, can create vastly different impressions. The language we use is important because of the non-explicit messages which are conveyed. Depending on how we phrase our words, we have the ability to avoid accidentally implying unnecessarily punitive attitudes and individual blame.
For example, when speaking about people who gamble, phrases such as “a compulsive gambler” or “a gambling addict” place gambling as the central aspect of the identity of an individual. Placing gambling as the central aspect of the identity of an individual can be stigmatising because it defines the individual in terms of gambling which could be considered as placing ultimate responsibility, or even blame, on the individual, and add to the pre-existing harm they experience.
Alternatively, individuals who gamble compulsively may prefer to be described as exactly that: “a person who gambles compulsively”. This language is non-stigmatising and centres the focus on the person, acknowledging them as an individual first and foremost, while also speaking about gambling in a clear and neutral way. It conveys the meaning that a person “has” a problem rather than that a person “is” a problem (Kelly, Saitz and Wakeman, 2016). When these ideas about stigmatisation are applied to all language used to discuss gambling harm, a far healthier environment is created.
What are the stigmatising terms for gambling harm and drug use and what are the terms that they should be using?
The table below has been prepared to provide examples of non-stigmatising language alongside equivalent stigmatising language, based on a table provided for similar terms relating to drug addiction. On the right-hand side of the table are two columns. The first is a list of terms that can be used to describe Problem Gambling in a way which frames the conversation by putting individuals first. The second column is a list of terms that are often used yet stigmatise those who gamble compulsively. For reference, the two left-hand columns provide the original table of terms concerning drug usage.
Dąbrowska, K. and Wieczorek, Ł. (2020) ‘Perceived social stigmatisation of gambling disorders and coping with stigma’, Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 37(3), pp. 279–297.
Hing, N., Nuske, E., Gainsbury, S. and Russell, A., 2015. Perceived stigma and self-stigma of problem gambling: perspectives of people with gambling problems. International Gambling Studies, 16(1), pp.31-48.
Kelly, J., Saitz, R. and Wakeman, S., 2016. Language, Substance Use Disorders, and Policy: The Need to Reach Consensus on an “Addiction-ary”. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 34(1), pp.116-123.
Yang, L., Wong, L., Grivel, M. and Hasin, D., 2017. Stigma and substance use disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 30(5), pp.378-388.