Gambling is a part of social life in Greek culture. Men traditionally play tavli at the kafenion, women enjoy playing card games and even children join in from an early age playing lucky games as part of the New Year’s Eve tradition. However experts warn that what may seem like harmless fun, can in fact make us more prone to addictive behaviours.

Recent research suggests that individuals not born in Australia, especially those who speak another language, are more likely to become problem gamblers than their English-speaking counterparts. For this reason, the diaspora’s involvement in Gambling Harm Awareness Week from 7-13 October 2019 is imperative, with initiatives such as Pronia’s information session on the adversities of gambling taking place on Thursday, as well as the continuation of Cr Mary Lalios’ war against the Pokies outside Victoria’s Parliament on Friday at 9.30 am.

By putting the spotlight on gambling, it is hoped people will be made more aware of the risks. However those most at need are also those least likely to accept that they have a problem.

“As Greeks, we are accepting of gambling. It is part of our culture,” Pronia Community Educator, Konstantina Kouroutsidou told Neos Kosmos, adding that gambling is a ‘hidden illness’ that is not easy to perceive, leading to isolation and mental illness.

“It’s acceptable, and in a lot of cases those affected don’t even realise they have a problem. They just live in the hope that they are going to make it this time, and believe they’ll make the money to pay their bills and get out of their difficult financial situation.”

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According to the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV), gambling is perceived as part of ‘Aussie’ culture. So new migrants who seek refuge in gambling to relieve the loneliness and anxiety of resettlement, oftentimes conceal their habit as a means to integrate themselves into the culture and lifestyle.

Recent research from Beyond Blue argues that gambling harm is of a “similar order of magnitude” as major depressive disorders and alcohol misuse. It is a social problem with far reaching negative psycho-social and physical health effects, impacting on mental health and well-being.

The social costs of gambling, including family breakdown, relationship problems, domestic violence, and emotional and psychological distress, depression and suicide, are estimated at nearly A$7 billion per year in Victoria alone.

Ms Kouroutsidou says the behaviour that can lead to gambling can start at a young age.

“We have parents complaining to us that they don’t see their children, with youngsters from 12 to 13 years of age locking themselves in their rooms with an iPad which has become part of the family, an extension of their arms,” Ms Kouroutsidou said.

Meanwhile, she says that the stereotype of the typical Greek gambler being male is not the case, with more and more elderly Greek widows turning to gambling as a way of overcoming their feelings of isolation.

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“These ladies, pensioners, find it difficult to use a tablet or a computer, but they know how to gamble on the phone using an app,” Ms Kouroutsidou said.

“They say that they’re just passing the time away, and justify their gambling habit by saying that they don’t spend more than five or 10 dollars, but it’s not about the amount that you win or lose, but about the time spent and inability to stop.”

It was the extreme cases that caused Cr Lalios of Whittlesea to advocate for pokies reforms.

“I hear stories consistently from all members of the community, and Greeks as well,” she said, concerned that Whittlesea has three of the largest venues with pokies, including the Epping Plaza Hotel, Plough Hotel and Bundoora Hotel.

“It is quite severe and women have told me that their pensions go straight to the pokies before they are forced to rely on emergency relief until the next pension comes along. In the most severe cases, a person lost their house because they kept reborrowing through the casino. The family was devastated and was left without a house.”

Such was the case with Greek compulsive gambler Harris Kakavas. He was forced to turn to the Australian justice system in an attempt to get a $20 million compensation from Crown Casino in Melbourne, where he played over half a billion dollars in one year. In a landmark case, the court ruled in 2013 that the casino was not to blame for his loss.

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Ms Kouroutsidou says that gamblers experience a release of endorphins, their senses triggered by the sounds of the pokies and bright lights, making it a complex addiction that needs to be better understood in order to find a solution.

“There is much stigma and shame attached to the notion of having a problem with gambling and this is why people don’t seek help,” she said.

To help break down this barrier, Pronia’s information session will give attendees the chance to hear not only from experts, but also a former gambler, who will give a first-hand account of their own experiences with gambling addiction.

Neos Kosmos newspaper was turned down for an interview from the Epping Hotel and is still waiting to speak with the management of the Plough Hotel in Mill Park regarding measures being taken to tackle gambling addiction.

Pronia’s gambling information session (in Greek) with morning tea will focus on the theme ‘Talk. Share. Support’. The forum will feature a speaker who will share her personal journey. Taking place on Thursday 10 October at 7 Union Street, Brunswick  from 10.00-11.00 am. For more information, call (03) 9388 9998.

In the midst of the landmark Royal Commission into Mental Health and Victoria’s Gambling Harm Awareness Week, the Alliance of Gambling Reform is coming together to voice lived experiences of gambling harm and mental ill-health directly to decision makers. The gathering will take place on Friday 11 October at Victoria’s Parliament at 9.30 am.