Contributed by Dr. Richard Wood, Founder & Director at GamTalk and Owner at GamRes Ltd.
What is gamtalk?
Gamtalk is an online community for anyone who has questions or concerns about gambling behaviour. Maybe it's their own gambling, or that of a family or friend. Or maybe it's someone in treatment who needs a little extra support, or someone in recovery who wants to share with others. At gamtalk, they can chat with people all over the world who are facing or have faced that same situation—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It's a place where someone struggling with the shame and stigma that comes with addiction can join in anonymously, or someone who isn't sure if they're ready for formal treatment can seek advice and find out about options. People in treatment might need some encouragement to avoid a relapse, while someone else might look for advice on how to talk to a family member about their gambling. Someone needing encouragement to overcome their gambling problems can find inspiration in the stories of others who have walked the same road. And in addition to peer support, they can ask questions of qualified experts in gambling treatment and recovery.
Gamtalk is a non-profit organization providing services across North America and beyond. We are not a substitute for local helpline or treatment services. Rather, we provide encouragement to make that call, and we're there for people who for whatever reason can't make it to a traditional treatment program. We're also there for people who may believe their gambling is getting out of control, but are not yet in need of an intensive treatment program. We were founded and are managed by Dr. Richard Wood, an internationally recognized expert with almost 20 years of experience in the field of problem gambling.
What do visitors get from peer support?
One thing that we have learned at gamtalk, through talking and listening to people who have experienced gambling problems, is that they needed to hear positive recovery stories. Reading such stories shows that that there is hope—it can be done! Many people with gambling problems feel very alone, particularly if they have never talked to anyone about it before. Finding out that others have beaten a gambling problem can be the boost needed to begin the road to recovery. Such stories can also provide practical ideas and strategies that have worked for others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so having lots of different options to try is extremely useful. To this end, gamtalk developed the "Stories of Hope" project. The aim is to gather together as many personal stories as possible about successfully managing a gambling problem. To date, we have 27 detailed recovery stories published. Each personal story is published anonymously as a free resource available to everyone.
Last year more than 200,000 people visited gamtalk, and we have found that it has the following advantages:
- many people now turn to Google first to find answers and gamtalk is right there to help.
- provides information and referral to other support and treatment services (local and national).
- particularly popular with women.
- provides hope, reassurance and support from a community of members in similar situations.
- gives support and information to concerned friends, relatives, parents etc.
- is free to use for anyone with concerns or requiring information.
- is easy and convenient to access; available 24/7.
- particularly helpful for people in remote areas and people with mobility issues or other restrictions such as child care considerations.
- provides a high level of anonymity for people who are not yet ready or willing to commit to face-to-face or telephone-based services.
- can be used as additional support in conjunction with treatment services (e.g., counselling).
- can be used to share a variety of strategies for coping with gambling issues.
- provides hope for people who are experiencing problems and highlight warning signs for those in danger of developing problems.
- can help people in recovery to abstain or cut back on their gambling behaviour and reduce impulsive decisions to gamble through accessing the service instead.
What advice would we give for setting up online peer support?
You can build the slickest website in the world and nobody will visit it unless you get the word out. Promoting your service is an essential part of the process. One way to do this is to buy advertising using Google Adwords, so that anyone searching in Google for terms related to problem gambling will see your website link and a description. You can specify the key search words and you can define where (geographically) you want the advert to be displayed (e.g., just Ontario).
Another paid promotion service that works really well is Facebook. Almost everyone has an account now and your ad can be targeted just to people who have visited gambling support groups, have liked gambling-related posts and other relevant criteria. Whilst you can also have a free Facebook page for your service, in our experience this doesn't attract many new visitors to your site. The key difference between a paid Facebook ad and a free Facebook page is that the ad is an anonymous experience for the visitor, whereas visiting or liking the free page is not and may be seen by the visitor's friends.
Sharing links with other relevant websites is one effective and free way to promote your online peer support service. Giving wallet cards with your website link to physical support services (e.g., counsellors, casino support staff) can also be a low-cost way to attract more visitors.
Also, don't expect to build a website and a community to evolve by itself. At first, there will be nobody around to talk to, so expect to have moderators respond to new visitors and have them pose questions and topics to get the conversations flowing. Once you start to get established, try to get people involved. Once you have some regular and trusted visitors, you can try letting them do some supervised moderating. Eventually, the community starts to take on a life of its own, but it takes time and perseverance.
Also, expect to completely redesign your website every four or five years. Websites age incredibly quickly and before you realize it your website is looking very tired and dated.
Finally, be prepared to deal with constant spammers and trolls who will try to disrupt your community. Having good technical support is critical here and it is essential to back up all of your precious community dialogues. One time, gamtalk was held hostage by hackers who demanded money to return our site back to us. Thankfully, we had backups of the entire site and were able to get back online with only minimal downtime and no ransom payments!
Running online peer support services can be very rewarding and we get lots of positive feedback from our visitors, many of which visit gamtalk for ongoing support whilst they also get help from traditional treatment and support services. Overall, it's a lot of work, but it's totally worth it.