Britain’s multi-billion-pound gambling industry is threatening to destroy the lives of nearly one million problem gamblers across the country. Experts in Sussex have now warned an increasing number of women are turning to the mesmerising bright lights of slot machines and internet gambling as an escape from deep-rooted emotional trauma. BEN LEO reports.
Sussex gambling charity Breakeven told The Argus it has recruited more councillors and held more recovery sessions, including female-only weekly meetings, year upon year as a growing number of women come forward seeking help with their addiction.
The latest publication of the British Gambling Prevalence Survey revealed a steady increase in the number of female gamblers in Britain over the last 14 years, including a 6% rise since 2007.
More specifically, national gambling charity Gamcare reported last year that the proportion of their women callers who asked them for help with internet-based gambling had rocketed to 31% from 21% in 2010.
The charity said innocently marketed gambling commercials, sandwiched between popular daytime TV shows like Jeremy Kyle and Loose Women, are fuelling a new generation of ‘hooked housewives’ who squander thousands of pounds in arcades and online fantasy worlds.
Charlotte, a 26-year-old single mother of two from Hove, wept as she revealed she’d spent more than £10,000 over two years playing online casino games like roulette and blackjack.
She’d also frittered an additional £2,000 in bank charges as her addiction continually left her overdrawn. Even worse, her compulsion fuelled thoughts of suicide.
She said: “My gambling started out as a bit of fun just to pass the time when the kids were at school. I would log on to roulette and slot games when I was having a break from the household chores.
“I would win £20 a day, then £50, then maybe after a few months £100 or £200 a day with minor losses. Then as the months went on there would be days where I lost £300 or £400 and eventually thousands. I found myself not being able to afford food for the kid’s lunch.
'Maxed credit cards'
“My financial situation got so bad I turned to family asking to borrow money and lied to them when they asked why I needed it. I maxed out credit cards and continually had bank charges coming in for going overdrawn.
"There were thoughts of killing myself, then I would think of my kids and try and pull myself together.
“The worst thing is I wasn’t in control, the gambling was. It was fixated on my brain. “Whenever I felt pained, sad or angry, I numbed myself through gambling. The end results would always be ‘what have I just done? Why am I so selfish? I will never do this again it’s not worth it’. But I would always go back.”
Despite a fragile economic climate, the value of the UK online gambling industry will smash the £2 billion mark for the first time in 2013.
Punters are able to gamble online for up to 24 hours a day, from poker and casino games to lottery tickets, bingo and even South American horse racing.
On the high street, around £164 million was spent on Fixed Odd Betting Terminals, or FOBTs, in Brighton alone in 2011. The machines cater for all types of casino games including the ever-popular roulette.
This onslaught of gambling activity kicked off in around 2005 when Tony Blair’s Government passed legislation, in the form of The Gambling Act, which allowed betting companies to advertise in the UK.
And it’s these adverts that initially seduced single-mum Charlotte into seeing what the fuss was about.
Wiping tears from her face, Charlotte continued: “One of the gambling websites I used sponsored one of my favourite soaps, Emmerdale.
"You don’t realise it but there are adverts and sponsorship clips all throughout the day and night.
“They’re marketed towards women, showing people having a great time and chatting to each other whilst winning money. It’s almost brainwashing and it’s far from reality.
“My situation hit a climax last year when I had no money to pay the rent and I’d exhausted all borrowing options with my family.
“As much as I knew in my head I had and still do have a problem, the hardest thing for a compulsive gambler is taking those steps to seek help, to tell your loved ones or to even say those words out loud. Even talking about it now is emotional.
“It’s a nasty vicious cycle of numbing yourself after you’ve realised you’ve just put yourself in major debt with money you literally didn’t have to bet with in the first place.
“I’ve been through a lot of trauma in my life I’ve never really dealt with and the end result was a gambling addiction. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy – it is soul destroying.
"The worst thing is that non gamblers would never understand. For me it’s the equivalent of somebody that self harms, it numbs the emotional pain.
“My health suffers because of the stress it has caused, I take my frustrations out on the people I love the most because I carried such a horrible dark secret and still battle with the thoughts.
"I go to sleep sometimes dreaming I’m on slots or playing poker because this was pretty much a daily thing for a long time.”
‘Addiction can be traced back to unresolved emotional issues’
Liz Karter, pictured below, a leading author, psychotherapist and gambling counsellor at Level Ground Therapy in Brighton and London, has been working with women and problem gambling for more than ten years. She said Charlotte’s case is similar to the majority of women she helps.
Through her work in one-to-one and group recovery sessions, she’s found most women with gambling addictions have deep, unresolved emotional issues.
She said: “We all have times in life when things get painful. We look for something that makes us feel better.
“Troubled women gamblers are often called neglectful, irresponsible or bad mothers if they have children and they will project an air of chaos and madness.
“But beneath the surface their addiction can be traced back to unresolved emotional issues like child abuse and domestic violence.
“People think it’s the buzz and excitement of gambling that these women are seeking and for a time it is. But beneath that they are looking for a numbing experience from unresolved pain.
“About 84% of the women who came to my female group sessions from 2009 to 2011 had experienced something intolerable like childhood abuse or violence.
“In fact I’ve come to expect something of that nature beneath the surface when people come to me for help.”
Charlotte’s attempts to finally beat the odds once and for all started in late 2012 when she paid a visit to Breakeven.
She said: “That first meeting was very intense and emotional because I’ve never said I’m a compulsive gambler out loud before, saying it finalised it for me. But I couldn’t help but feel shame and question how I got to this, I just wanted it to stop.”
Liz Karter’s new book, ‘Women and Problem Gambling’, will be published on March 18 by Routledge.
‘So many people suffer in silence’
Ian Semel, pictured below, who works for Breakeven, said they initially try and help addicts make the process of gambling a “hard thing to do” through use of industry tools, like setting deposit limits on websites.
They held around 2,500 counselling sessions for problem gamblers at their building in Ditchling Road last year – their most ever.
He added: “After the initial process, we dig a bit deeper and establish how, when and why the problem occurred. We try and make them see that it’s all about good and bad choices. It takes time, as with any addiction.
“We have seen an increase in the number of women coming to see us, but I think that’s because there is more awareness and help available now.
“Women are being encouraged to come forward instead of keeping it to themselves. The industry is getting better at raising awareness that help is available if needed. This can be done through meetings with groups like ours, self-exclusion from bookmakers or setting deposit limits online.
“But there’s still not as many people coming forward as there should be. Help like ours is only reaching a small percentage.”
Charlotte is still attending counselling sessions and urges anyone else with a gambling problem to come forward.
She said: “As much as everyone is responsible for their own actions addictions are the biggest battle you could ever wish to face.
“So many people suffer in silence with nowhere to turn whilst bookies take advantage of people with a problem, whilst the government allow more bookies on the street and more advertising for something that will eventually destroy us.
“I beat myself up every day, slowly not knowing who or what I was anymore, like I’d sold my soul to the devil himself. I realise now that I need help and it’s not something I can do alone. I urge anyone out there with a problem to come forward and get help. You are not alone.”
A spokesperson from the Gambling Commission said they were not accountable for most internet-based betting companies as the majority of them were based offshore in countries like Gibraltar and the Isle of Man.
As a result, they are also exempt from paying tax.
They added: “There is however a bill going through Parliament at the moment called the Gambling, Licensing & Advertising Bill.
“The bill would mean remote operators that sell gambling services to people in Great Britain will have to be licensed by ourselves. It's hoped it will all be finalised by 2014.”
The spokesperson added: “We cannot comment on individual cases.”
Jessica, 33, from Brighton “In March 2009, my life as I knew it was about to change. My employer found out I had been stealing from the workplace to fund my gambling habit. I felt so ashamed and guilty about what I had done and the people that I had hurt.
“I hated who I had become and what gambling had made me do. I will never forget that walk of shame out of work and wanting my world to swallow me up.
“Later that day my family found out what happened. I just remember sitting in floods of tears not really believing that this was true. It was like I was in another world.
“No one in my family would speak to me. I felt lost and alone. I was petrified but had no one to turn to. I did not know what help was available and I found it hard admitting I had a problem.
Nothing to lose
“I didn’t want other people to know what I had done but I was told about a women’s group for female problem gamblers and decided I had nothing to lose.
“Walking through the doors at my first group was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I felt like for the first time someone understood me.
“I found the courage to face what I had been running away from. My gambling was my way of punishing myself and running away from any thoughts, feelings and flashbacks about something that happened to me in the past.
“At the time I did not know how to deal with the horrible event and gambling enabled me to cope with it.
“Problem gambling for many women like me is not about money but escaping everyday problems. When I gambled I felt emotionally numb.
“What started as a bit of fun, like what you see on the endless TV adverts, spirals out of control and gambling takes over your whole life.
“If there are any women with problems reading this, please do not give up hope. You can get help, support and turn your life around.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of. You can have a ‘new life’ not controlled by gambling. You do not have to get to the place that I did in order to get help.”
- If you have a gambling problem or know somebody who does, help is available by contacting either Liz Karter at Ground Level Therapy on 0845 2666658 or by calling Breakeven on 01273 833 722.
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