The latest innovation in problem gambling treatment and prevention couples a community-oriented approach with expert analysis.
Four St. Michael’s researchers from Unity Health Toronto recently launched a smartphone app to support people who struggle with problem gambling.
SPRinG is an easily accessible, self-management journaling and monitoring tool, designed to help users better understand their unique gambling patterns and urges. Further, it provides researchers with insights into this population. It also assesses the viability of a digital solution to problem gambling.
The group spearheading the projects consists of:
- Dr. Flora Matheson, a research scientist at St. Michael’s
- Dr. Arthur McLuhan, a senior research associate at St. Michael’s
- Madison Ford, a research coordinator from the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions
- Dr. Alireza Sadeghian, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Department of Computer Science
SPRinG app is user-driven
From basic support to risk management, and beyond, all strategies and solutions derived from the app depend on the user. SPRinG’s main function is to catalogue a user’s individual inputs and channel that information into useful, action-inducing data.
Once registered, users will complete the Problem Gambling Severity Index and the Gambling Symptom Assessment Scale, both of which are self-assessment screening tools. From there, they will continue these assessments on a regular basis.
“These assessments provide users with self-monitoring tools and allow us to view patterns of urge frequency, urge intensity, gambling frequency and gambling losses over time,” said Ford in a Q and A with Unity Health Toronto.
Through this model, participants are also able to learn more about their individual gambling behaviours.
“For example, users can track their location during a gambling urge, how much money they’ve lost in gambling events for the past week, and how this compares to previous weeks.”
“All of these variables help users identify triggers and high-risk situations and develop strategies for managing them.”
Particularly, in the event that any of these scenarios occur, the app offers four options to deter them from gambling:
- Engage in a distraction
- Contact a friend
- Engage in alternate activities; and
- Contact a 24/7 crisis line
Of course, it’s at the discretion of the user to follow these alternatives; however, having multiple options may help increase the likelihood that they do.
Project boasts serious group of financial backers
Whereas as most research projects have difficulty garnering financial support from outside donors, SPRinG did not.
About five years ago, during the early development stages, the endeavour received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health to move forward with a prototype. Since then, several backers have come around to support the advancement of SPRinG, including:
- The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
- The Canadian Institute of Health Research through the Collaborative Health Research Projects Initiative
- The Responsible Gaming Council
Part of what drew organizations to SPRinG, specifically, is its commitment to authoring a service that is not only accessible, but also far-reaching.
“In Ontario, there are not enough gambling support services for those who need them. These services are often siloed, and many have long wait lists,” said Dr. Matheson. “Our community partners wanted a tool that could bridge these services, and could be accessed outside of normal 9-5 business hours, when a gambling event is likely to occur.”
“The app is always there in users’ back pockets, whenever they need it.”
Additionally, Dr. McLuhan also mentioned that the app is understanding of the fact that many users are also experiencing poverty and homelessness. As such, the language and strategies programmed into the app are tethered to that context.
For example, instead of suggesting a trip to the gym, which may be out of range financially, as an alternative, the app might prompt users to go for a walk.
“It’s important that we provide users with information and strategies that don’t further stigmatize them.”
Researchers take pride in their creation
The experts responsible for introducing SPRinG to the masses believe their invention has the power to make meaningful change.
For Dr. Sadeghian, a computer science professor with no background in problem gambling research, his role was different from that of his peers, but equally important. His expertise on the technological side of things helped bridge strategy with functionality.
“We worked together to make sure the app was user-friendly, appealing and inviting to the end-user,” he said. “You can have the most beautiful-designed app in the world, but if people won’t use it or don’t find it useful, it doesn’t matter.
In Ford’s view, the privatized nature of the app also enables problem gamblers to confront their addiction on their own terms, away from prying eyes.
“They don’t necessarily need to engage with anyone else beyond the app until they’re ready, and maybe it’s a step towards them seeking treatment.”
Ultimately, the main goal of the app is to empower a struggling population to take those next steps in treating their addiction. In order for that to happen, the supports available must reflect the particular needs of the community.
“I find it exciting to work with the community to design and create something that they’re asking for,” said Dr. Matheson. “The next step is ramping up recruitment and getting this into the hands of people who need it.”
The SPRinG app is now live and available for download on the Apple App Store and Google Play.
Where to get help
Connex Ontario provides problem gamblers with confidential help available on multiple platforms 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You can call toll-free (1-866-531-2600). You can also text (247247). There are also chat and email options available. Connex Ontario is not a counselling service. However, it does connect you to appropriate treatment options in your nearby community.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with a gambling problem and needs help, PlayCanada also has a list of responsible gambling in Ontario resources.
Help, support and education can also be found at:
Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare – Centre for Problem Gambling and Digital Dependency
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and one of the world’s leading research centres in its field. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre.
Responsible Gambling Council
Phone: +1 (416) 499-9800