We need to demystify and destigmatise betting addiction

Betting has undergone unprecedented revolution. [iStockphoto]

Dr Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who has extensively worked with patients who had co-occurring mental health and substance use, defines addiction in three criteria: craving the addictive substance or behavior, engaging in the addictive substance or behavior in order to experience pleasure or temporary relief from some kind of pain and, finally, the inability to give up the substance or behavior.

He says addiction is an attempt to solve a problem. It is the symptom of a deeper malaise -- in most cases trauma. When bad things happened, or simply when good things that should have happened didn’t (like when children didn’t get their needs met), this can lead to addiction.

Gambling, betting, casting lot or karata, as it is locally known, has undergone unprecedented revolution. The Kenyan society by large has not been left out of the global wave and trends. 

The modern-day Kenyan who bets is between 14 and 65 years old, male, female and intersex. A law or medical practitioner or even community health worker or teacher. He or she could be a farmer or thriving entrepreneur or your salonist or barber. 

Betting is no longer a criminal and hooliganism endeavor. It’s not an immoral vice. As a matter of legality, it is regulated by an Act of parliament. The Act provides for the control and licensing of betting and gaming premises and the activities carried therein; for the imposition and recovery of taxes, for the authorisation of lotteries and prize competition as well as eradication of illegal gambling.  

People will speak of how betting has built homes, paid and settled debts, schooled children and paid rent, put food on tables and probably even paid dowry. Some will even justify betting is a job.

We know that betting is the engine behind major sports and various political systems and definitely a huge component of the tax system. 

So why do we castigate, stigmatise and demonise betting? Because it’s clouded in our understanding and appreciation of addiction.

Our society has been taught to lack empathy and compassion for addicts. We perceive anyone with an addiction as irresponsible, vagabond, criminal, derelict beyond choice and conscious. To a larger extent we jail them and coercively institute them in rehabilitatiom centres. This phenomenon is not unique to Kenya. It is a globally rooted biomedical narrative and approach to mental health supported by archaic and colonial laws that have continually perpetuated sanism. Whatever substance or behavior we are addicted to helps us to get pain relief, love, connection and joy. Jailing and disconnecting people from societies only helps to enforce a cycle of trauma and intergenerational pain.  

We need to have more conversations on social determinants of mental health and addictions and more community preventive and promotive aspects of mental health. More trauma informed schools that address adverse childhood experiences. More mental health champions in work places to support colleagues who are dealing with various losses, grief and past traumatic experiences.  

I would like to see more advocacy on safe betting and betting companies paying for impactful transformational social outcomes not just as part of CSR but equally aligning to the global compact principles of shared value and business doing good.

- The author is Executive Director, Coalition Action For Preventive Mental Health Kenya