Addressing the Impact of Problem Gambling on Affected Others: Insights from Matthew Vassallo

Thu, 28 Sep, 2023

Matthew Vassallo is a Research Support Officer with the Faculty of Social Wellbeing whilst doing his PhD at the University of Malta. This role and study programme is sponsored by Kindred Group as part of our commitment towards research in reducing gambling related harm.

In Matthew’s peer reviewed published research paper entitled “The Efficacy of Psychosocial Interventions in minimising the harm caused to affected other of problem gambling: A systematic review and meta-analysis", the researchers wanted to learn how to help people who are affected when someone they know has a gambling problem. They looked at various research and found different ways people try to help. Some ways involve helping both the person who gambles and the people around them, and some only help the people around them. Through the results of this research the researchers found that when we want to help people who are affected by gambling problems, we need to think more about making them feel better and also making sure we measure things in the same way to understand if our help is working.

We had the opportunity to ask Matthew Vassallo some questions about his research and the most unexpected findings:

Congratulations Matthew on your recently published research! Can you give a brief overview of your study's main objectives and key findings? 

Thank you! The objectives of this study were to identify the psychosocial interventions aimed at supporting affected others by problem gambling, which have been tested in randomised controlled trials, and to assess their efficacy. It was concluded that two main types of interventions exist: those involving the problem gambler and the affected others and those involving affected others alone. Despite these interventions showing minimal superiority over control groups for both types of interventions, interventions targeted at affected others alone proved to be slightly more beneficial in supporting affected others to deal with the multi-faceted impacts they experience. 

What inspired you to pursue this particular research topic? Was there a specific gap in knowledge or an important question you sought to address?

Prevalence rates of affected others in the literature have been quoted as high as 19% of the general population; in other words, 1 in every 5 individuals might be somewhat impacted by someone else's problem gambling. Nevertheless, interventions aimed at affecting others have yet to be given much attention in the literature, and experts in the field have questioned the efficacy of interventions tested in randomised experiments. These interventions are of utmost importance in problem gambling as it is known that affected others experience several negative repercussions which might continue even if the problem gambling stops gambling. 

What were some of your research's most surprising or unexpected findings?

One of the most surprising findings was that aside from a few Swedish studies, this field of research has not been given much attention in European studies despite problem gambling prevalence rates in the continent. Most studies were conducted in Canada. Another surprising finding was that affected others wanted both interventions, including the problem gambler and the affected other, and those involving affected others alone. However, the latter should be provided first so that affected others deal with their feelings and issues before tackling issues with the problem gambler. 

Were there any challenges or obstacles you encountered while conducting the study, and how did you overcome them?

One of the main challenges was obtaining data from unpublished studies in the field. Since the area of interventions aimed at affecting others by problem gambling is still quite novel, it was imperative to get hold of all the available data. Although the authors were very helpful, they did pose a setback since this research was part of a larger Doctoral study with its timeframes and set deadlines. The only way to overcome this was to be persistent and patient. In the end, waiting proved to be rewarding since the unpublished data gave my study more robust findings than having gone ahead without the unpublished data, as it included studies which had not been included in similar research.

Your research has implications for affecting others. How do you foresee these findings influencing future research or real-world applications?

This systematic review was the first to differentiate between the efficacy of psychosocial interventions involving the problem gamblers and affected others and those involving affected others only. Although this review supports the findings from previous studies, which concluded that these interventions only showed minimal superiority over control groups in outcome domains relating to anxiety and depression, it also revealed that this was better achieved by psychosocial interventions involving affected others on their own. This finding may benefit stakeholders and service providers in the field to build their interventions on this evidence-based research. 

In your opinion, what are the most significant contributions of your study to the existing body of knowledge in your field?

This study confirmed previous researchers' claims that current interventions aimed at affecting others of problem gambling are not meeting the needs of this vulnerable population. It also gave a better indication of which of the two interventions might be more effective, which was something that wasn't done before, as the efficacy of both interventions was assessed collectively.

How do you see your research fitting into the broader context of ongoing research in your field?

Given that problem gambling is associated with low treatment entry, significant treatment drop-out and high relapse rates, interventions aimed at affected others need to be better investigated. Effective interventions aimed at supporting affected others will not only give affected others the tools to deal with the current repercussions they experience as a result of problem gambling. However, they will also equip them to deal with potential future issues such as relapse and better managing their finances, which is the most common repercussion experienced by affected others. 

What is next? What are your plans?

I am currently co-developing my psychosocial intervention, which will be pilot-tested in a randomised controlled trial to assess its efficacy. It is imperative because structured treatment for affected others is limited, particularly in the local scene. Moreover, the efficacy of international interventions also has limitations, as witnessed by the systematic review and meta-analysis I conducted. By adopting an evidence-based approach and involving experts from the field to guide my research, I hope the efficacy of future interventions, including the one I am co-developing, will be improved. 


  • Maris Catania
    Head of Responsible Gaming & Research