We need to start taking problem gambling in the military as seriously as alcohol abuse
We expect the government to do right by our armed forces; to protect them during active duty and care for them as veterans. As a nation we have enshrined this in the Armed Forces Covenant. Each year the public express their gratitude on Remembrance Day. These tributes, however, should not begin and end on November 11th. We need world class welfare support services for all those in the military.
The UK has a long and honourable record of providing support to our military. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) understands that the particularities of military life can make those who serve more vulnerable to certain forms of mental health harms. Since 2008, the MOD has published annual data on a wide range of armed forces mental health issues. This longitudinal evidence, alongside a range of pre-existing academic literature, prompted the MOD to introduce the AUDIT-C questionnaire for alcohol misuse screening in 2016.
The case of alcohol screening is a textbook example of governments intervening in response to evidence. When the MOD started to collect data into alcohol misuse, they were already building on a sizable body of academic literature looking at the relationship between the armed forces and alcohol consumption.
Gambling related harm is often hidden and compounded by the uniqueness of the military environment
Until the recent Armed Forces Bill, the MOD was able to ignore the issue of problem gambling in the military due to a dearth of UK-based academic literature on the issue. There are only two UK studies to date analysing gambling in the military community; both concluded that veterans were at a significantly higher risk of gambling related harm compared to the general adult population.
The most recent 2021 study, “The United Kingdom Armed Forces Veterans’ Health and Gambling Study”, found that gambling-related harm co-occurred with complex PTSD, a possible indicator that problems begin during active service.
Despite previously being reluctant to recognise this problem, the MOD has made some welcome progress. There is now a commitment to remove all gambling machines from military bases, to include a question on gambling related harm in the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey (AFCAS), and a general commitment to “capture gambling-related harm” in their annual research on mental health.
Positive though this is, it is vital that the government gets the implementation right. Whilst the removal of gambling machines is a positive step, it does not address the fact that most gambling harms occurs online, something implicitly recognised by the Army Headquarters Regional Command in their transition IPPD information Sheet 14 when it highlighted gambling as an activity that can occur unsupervised in secluded single living accommodation.
The focus must, therefore, be on incorporating the best possible screening question into the AFCAS. The US Department of Defense’s Health Related Behaviour Survey currently uses the two question lie-bet questionnaire to ascertain problem gambling levels. The MOD would be wise to mimic the American example, given the USA’s greater library of research and action on the issue of gambling related harm in the military.
Finally, the somewhat vague commitment to capture gambling related harm should still mean that gambling-related harm is put on parity with and treated as seriously as alcohol-misuse, which has been a staple of the MOD’s annual “UK Armed Forces Mental Health: Annual Summary and Trends over Times” reports since their inception.
Gambling related harm is often hidden and not treated in the same way as other addictions, and like other addictions it can be compounded by the uniqueness of the military environment. The Ministry of Defence has a strong record on military welfare and it is to be hoped they will continue to improve on that record by treating gambling related harm as seriously as other mental harms.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans is a non-affiliated peer.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.