IIt was Christmas Day 2018 when things came to a head for Bev. By her own admission, it had been “a lovely day.” “Everything was great,” she says. “There was no reason for me to bet, but in my mind – in a player’s mind – it was Christmas Day, so you couldn’t lose. I told myself they wouldn’t do that to you on Christmas Day.”
Within 90 minutes, the 59-year-old from Newcastle had bet £5,000. “I emptied my husband’s bank account,” she says The Independent. “I even borrowed money from my daughter claiming I had an urgent bill that needed to be paid. I lost everything – and then I overdosed.”
The UK is home to one of the biggest gambling markets in the world, generating a profit of £14.2 billion in 2020. Historically, gambling has been classified as a problem that largely affects men, but a GambleAware survey from January this year year revealed that the number of women treated for gambling has doubled in five years, with up to one million women at risk of gambling-related problems. She added that this number may represent only a small proportion of women who suffer gambling-related injuries.
Bev’s gambling problems started about 16 years ago. “I entered a competition on a popular television site and a betting popup popped up and I thought, ‘I’m going to try this,’” she said. Before that, she had never gambled: “It just wasn’t something that interested me. It felt like throwing money away.”
After depositing £10, she quickly won £800. “I couldn’t believe the money was mine to keep,” she says. “I started depositing more and more and the £800 ran out very quickly. After that, I was hooked.”
An early win was also “the hook” that kept Stacey, 29, of Derbyshire, coming back for more at the start of her gambling addiction. Her poison was slot machines and scratch cards. “It’s fast and completely mind-numbing to look at the wheels turning,” she says.
The intoxicating effect of gambling is a significant draw for many women who gamble, according to experts. Liz Karter MBE, one of the UK’s leading therapists on gambling addiction among women, says the oblivion offered by gambling can provide a space away from the stresses of everyday life. “You’ll rarely hear women talk about loving the buzz or the thrill of the game, or loving the accolades that winning gives them as many men do,” she says. The Independent.
“For women, gambling is losing themselves in an experience where, ultimately, they don’t think and feel nothing. The complete focus in the game is a distraction from stressful thoughts and feelings. It’s an escape from overwhelming responsibilities and anxieties.”
It’s a familiar story for Tracey, 58, from Berkshire. “My game was never about money,” she says. “It was a void filling. When I played, I didn’t worry about anything… the game took me out of my reality.”
For Bev, things had started to fall apart long before that fateful Christmas and had deteriorated over the years. As the household finance manager, she had easy access to cash, but unbeknownst to her loved ones, she maxed out all her credit cards and took out loans to pay them off, which went straight into her gaming fund. She was also borrowing money from friends, family and even people at work. “I lied to everyone I met,” she said. “I was in a terrible place mentally.
“My husband and I have good salaries and I would often wait until midnight on payday when the money came into my account each month. My husband was sleeping in bed and within a few hours I blew it.”
All the women spoke about the “ease” of online gambling and its 24/7 availability. Tracey describes the internet as “the crack of the game”. She says: “When I first started playing, places opened and closed. I could have been the first in and the last out, but there was still a closing time.”
Before moving to the internet, Stacey was traveling between different bookmakers in an effort to avoid drawing attention to her gambling problem. Online, things were very different, however. “It was so easy. Nobody knew what I was doing.”
Karter makes a direct link between the rise of the game among women and its growing ubiquity. “We have gambling in our homes, offices and bags,” she says. “However, we have to look at any addiction within a social and mental health context. We see an increase in stress, depression and anxiety in women and this leads to self-medication through gaming… it seems very easy to get lost in the virtual world of online gaming.”
All three women found the support they needed through an all-female residential retreat with Gordon Moody, part of a network of National Gambling Treatment Service organizations that offer a variety of treatments. “I went in there as a broken woman, but I left feeling like there was hope,” says Bev. “They equipped us with the tools and strategies to stop you in the moment before you place a bet. It’s brilliant. Something just clicked and it worked.”
Stacey admits she was initially “extremely skeptical” that the service could help her, but describes it as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
While all three women describe themselves as recovering from the game, some of the aftermath are harder to leave behind.
“Payday loans, credit cards – my debt was huge,” says Stacey. “I moved from house to house and lived with friends because I couldn’t get anywhere with my bad credit. It’s long-term game damage that I’m still working on – it’s going to be a long time before I get a house.”
Bev would like to see major reforms in the gambling industry. “One of the worst things that would happen when I was trying to stop gambling was when companies would message you as a ‘VIP customer’ and say, ‘We haven’t seen you in a while – here’s £200 in your account’. That was so bad.
“I also think they should check out new account holders, like when you’re applying for a loan,” she adds. “The number of times I deposited thousands of pounds in a very short period of time… they must have realized I had a problem but they just pushed it further.”
A government white paper addressing these issues is long overdue and expected to be published this month. Representative Carolyn Harris, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling-Related Damages, called the need for accessibility checks, spending limits and independent assessments of new users “overwhelming.”
Stacey, Bev and Tracey want more people to understand that this is a devastating affliction that can and does affect women – but that help is available.
“It’s really important to get in touch and talk to someone,” says Tracey. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, or your age – you will never be alone.”
Stacy agrees. “I don’t want anyone to feel as lonely as I did. If you can get past the shame, there are plenty of places to go that specifically help women where you won’t be judged. Taking the first step is scary, but it’s so worth it. There is hope.”
For information, support and advice on gambling issues, contact:
Gordon Moody (gordonmoody.org.uk), Gamble Aware (begambleaware.org), Gamblers Anonymous, which organizes a series of online and real-life meetings “preferred by women” (gamblersanonymous.org.uk), BetSaberMore (betknowmoreuk.org) and GamCare (www.gamcare.org.uk).