The Losing Hand

Just as lockdowns saw drinking shift from physical venues to home, so it was with gambling. But the exponential rise in online gambling – where anyone with a smartphone has instant access to a vast casino that never shuts – is hitting women particularly hard. DDN reports.

March 2022 DDN magazine
Read the full article in March DDN

The hearing into the role gambling played in the death of 24-year-old Jack Ritchie has once again put gambling addiction in the headlines, and coincides with the NHS informing the GambleAware charity that it would no longer be accepting funding from the industry for its gambling clinics (see news, page 5 ). Ritchie had started gambling while at school, using his dinner money to play on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBT), dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’. Just seven years later he took his own life, with his parents arguing that he was addicted to ‘products licensed by the start’.

Last month NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch wrote to GambleAware confirming that the NHS will fully fund its own gambling services from April onwards, following unease among clinicians and patients around the perceived conflict of interest of industry funding for treatment. May will see the NHS open two new gambling clinics, in Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent, to complement its existing services in Leeds, London, Manchester and Sunderland, as well as the national children and young person’s clinic.

The two new facilities are to help meet the ‘record demand for specialist support for gambling addiction’, the NHS states, with rates of online gambling in particular rising over the last couple of years, as people worked from home or found themselves with huge amounts of time on their hands after being furloughed. A study led by the University of Bristol found that, while lockdowns meant that overall people were gambling less frequently as physical premises closed their doors, use of online poker, bingo and casino games increased six-fold among people who were already regular gamblers.

Online games have also made gambling much more accessible to women, who may have been unlikely to visit high-street betting shops. A YouGov poll of almost 10,000 women using the Problem Gambling Severity Index found that up to 1m women may now be at risk of gambling harm, and according to GambleAware the number of women receiving treatment for problem gambling has doubled over the last five years to just under 2,500 – a figure that’s likely to represent ‘a fraction’ of those experiencing gambling-related harms, the charity states. Just under 40 per cent of women may also ‘refrain from seeking help or treatment’ as a result of the stigma surrounding the issue, with GambleAware launching its first harm prevention scheme aimed specifically at women earlier this year.

‘Gambling behaviours manifest themselves differently in women than men,’ said gambling addiction counsellor Liz Karter. ‘For example, we know the easy availability of online gambling leads many women to games which appear innocent and socially acceptable. The games seem safe and familiar, as they are so similar to the free play digital games we are all now used to playing. In addition, the hopes of financial gains can prove a powerful motivator. While gambling doesn’t always lead to harm, it’s vital women are aware of early warning signs including losing track of time, incurring increasing debt, or a tendency to hide gambling from others or gambling to forget their problems.’

As almost all literature on gambling harms has so far focused on men, GambleAware has commissioned IFF Research, the University of Bristol and GamCare’s Women’s Programme to carry out a three-phase research project, Building knowledge of women’s lived experience of gambling and gambling harms across Great Britain, which will run until the end of this year. The project will explore why women take part in different types of gambling, the effect on their lives, and their experiences of treatment and support.

‘We conducted a rapid evidence assessment which found that much of the academic research on gambling has long focused on men, or assumes that only men may develop problems with gambling,’ said Prof Maria Fannin of the University of Bristol. ‘This is starting to change as we learn more from women themselves and their experiences. We want to know more about how gambling becomes part of women’s lives and how their experiences may differ from men’s. Ultimately, we want our work to change the public perception and awareness of who can develop problems with gambling and ensure women’s needs and concerns are taken into account.’

Kelly’s story

The intimidating men-only environments of betting shops meant that problem gambling was largely a male problem, but the rise of online gambling has changed all that.

Kelly Field describes how what started as a few games of online bingo led to financial and emotional devastation.

I started with online bingo sites in around 2012. I was looking for an escape from reality, and you’ll find that with a lot of women you speak to – they want escapism from day-to-day life or from trauma. I think I realised I had a problem early on, but you cross that invisible line of it becoming an addiction.

Within six months I’d spend ten and a half grand on one credit card, no questions asked. There are triggers for harm data which would have flagged me up and they should have followed their duty of care, but rather than using it to signpost people to help and prevent them getting into trouble they use it to exploit them. The credit card company didn’t say anything either, and it’s taken me seven years to pay the debt off. But I spent a lot more than that overall.

You sort of know you’ve got a problem, but you think “I’ll win the jackpot and pay it back and I’ll be alright.” You have these delusional thoughts of “everyone’s a winner”, because that’s how it’s portrayed. A lot of people assume it’s just a financial issue but it’s not just money you lose – it’s self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence. My mental health was at rock bottom and I put on loads of weight because I just isolated myself in the house playing these games. My son didn’t get the things he wanted, we didn’t go on holiday. There were times when we had £20 a week to live on. You lose more than money.

People have this stigma and embarrassment, and they’re not telling anybody. They’ve got all this debt and can’t tell people how they got it and it causes people to take their own lives, because they’d have to admit they’ve got a gambling addiction. I became suicidal – you get in such a dark place with it and it just consumes your whole life. It takes over and you think the only way out is to end your life, because then it’ll stop.

At the time there were very few support services. There was basically only Gamblers Anonymous, but I’d never have gone to that as a woman because it’s a completely male-dominated environment. The lived experience people who work for the services and charities now are still predominantly men, so when they go into schools and colleges speaking to young people it just reinforces that message that it’s still a male-dominated addiction. But you can see how women are targeted in the daytime with the pink and fluffy bingo adverts and then in the evening it’s all casinos and football – they know exactly what they’re doing. Every other advert is a gambling advert, and they’re using celebrities to endorse it. You couldn’t put adverts for pornography on TV because there’d be uproar, but the gambling advertising on TV and social media normalises it for young people – these are adult products.

The point I knew I needed treatment was when I’d maxed out all the credit cards but I managed to get a £1,600 overdraft on our joint account, and within 50 minutes I’d spent all of it on slots online. I was devastated and disgusted and ashamed, and I had to ring my partner and tell him I’d done it again after promising to stop so many times. I just snapped the card up and started cutting at my wrists. The GP gave me pills and got me a counselling appointment but the counsellor didn’t turn up the first time so I never went back. I carried on gambling for about another 18 months before I found a local service and got a 12-week talking therapy.

I’ve tried to turn a negative into a positive and I’ve campaigned to get credit cards banned for gambling and to raise awareness of gambling addiction, particularly with women. I relapsed once early on but I’ve got [blocking software] Gamban on my phone and I stay away from all forms of gambling. It would be like an alcoholic saying they’ll just have one drink – it would soon be a bottle of vodka. In some ways gambling addiction is easier to hide than with drugs or alcohol, because there’s no substance. You can be in all this debt and about to lose your family and your home but you can put a smile on your face and no one will know. But we have far, far too many suicides that are directly linked to gambling addiction.

Kelly Field, as told to DDN

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