The faith-based community and problem gambling in Bermuda

Bermuda, with its pink sands and turquoise waters, has often been hailed as “another world.”

This 21-square-mile island paradise is knit together with an interesting mix of British, American and Caribbean influences, resulting in a cultural, political and spiritual landscape that’s all its own.

It is with this unique nation in mind that Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission Executive Director Richard Schuetz opted to host a cutting-edge event on problem gambling.

More than 50 local stakeholders gathered for the “Awareness of Gambling Addiction in the Faith Community” presentation on Monday, March 27. Led by Dr. Deborah Haskins, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, and Keith Whyte, executive director of the U.S. National Council on Problem Gambling, the event was successful in educating and training members of the faith-based community on best ways to address and tackle gambling addiction.

According to Schuetz, the event was “groundbreaking” in its efforts to prevent and minimize some of the negative effects potentially caused by the gaming industry.

“Rather than just responding to the problems as they arise, we are being proactive in addressing the risks of problem gambling in Bermuda, well before the first casino even opens its doors on the island in the early part of 2018,” Schuetz said.

U.S.-based expert Dr. Deborah Haskins has specialized in counseling cultural communities since the 1990s. Due to their history of oppression, disenfranchisement and other social issues, she said the African-descent population on the island could be at greater risk for challenges associated with gambling. Some might use gambling as a financial strategy to ensure ends meet; some others might be in desperate need to get funds due to unemployment or under-employment—in such cases gambling would cause them to feel more trapped rather than liberated.

The March presentation and training was a “powerful” example of how a cross-section of a population, from mental health care professionals and addiction counselors to church leaders, lay people and clergy, could come together to address a concern, said Haskins.

“The fact remains that treatment practitioners can’t be solely responsible for addressing problem gambling and increasing public awareness,” she said. “Although not everyone will exhibit risky behaviors when it comes to gambling, there is a segment of the population that will—and it’s up to all of us as a community to be partners in spreading awareness on the problem and possible solutions.”

Raising up the faith community as first responders is something revolutionary for the gambling industry, according to Haskins, who said the psychology field typically distanced itself from religion and spirituality.

“Faith leaders and the spiritual communities are important resources for providing support, especially to the African-descent community, whose members are more likely to talk to a friend, spouse or pastor than seek help from a counselor,” she said.

“By providing tools so these church leaders and lay persons better understand what causes problem gambling, who is most at risk and what resources are available, this allows those in the faith community to respond empathetically so they can co-journey with the person or their family. It allows them to provide greater support, helping the individual navigate and work through the challenges.”

It’s important for the person in crisis to feel supported rather than judged, she said.

That’s why statements like “gambling is a sin,” “you just need to pray more,” or “you must not be strong enough in your faith if you are not able to stop,” while intended as spiritual encouragers, can be experienced as shame and actually pose as a deterrent to people getting help.

“The important thing is to stay in a relationship with the individual and their family, so you can be their problem-solver,” she stated. “The person struggling with the gambling addiction may reach out for support when they get in trouble, but depending on how the support responds can mean the difference between that person getting help or sinking deeper into debt and despair. If agents are responding in a way that feels judgmental, the individual may become defensive.

“As treatment providers we want to keep the door open and dialogue going so we can continue to provide support,” Haskins continued. “Faith leaders and spiritual communities are outstanding in doing that, and have been doing it for centuries—now we just want to increase their understanding of what can happen with problem gambling so they can provide resources to those in need.”

Creating a Bermuda model for gambling—and taking into account the cultural, social, economic, political and religious landscape of the country—has been vital to the integration of resort casinos on the island.

International experts associated with the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission maintain that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work in Bermuda’s case.

“Bermuda’s model needs to be reflective of the population, which happens to be 60 percent African decent and also very religious. Without taking those characteristics into consideration, it’s not going to work,” Haskins said.

“Unfortunately, in most places, they try to integrate culture into an already-existing model, but it’s more helpful to incorporate the cultural world view into the process from the outset. The wonderful thing about the Bermuda opportunity is the recognition and realization that we need to start with the assets in the community, which is the faith community, and include them in the process.”

Nadia Laws is a former journalist and the owner of Communications Consulting Firm, the Media Maven, on the island of Bermuda. After finishing her training with the Press Association in the U.K., Laws was appointed senior reporter in 2010 at the island’s premier media provider, The Royal Gazette, reporting on a variety of political and social news and human-interest topics.