In Christmas Day 2018, things came to a head for Bev. By his own admission, it had been “a beautiful day”. “Everything was fine,” she says. “There was no reason why I should have played, but in my head – in a player’s head – it was Christmas, so there was no way to lose. I told myself they wouldn’t do that to you on Christmas day.”
In 90 minutes, the 59-year-old from Newcastle had lost £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 paying. I lost the whole lot – and then I overdosed.”
The UK is home to one of the largest gambling markets in the world, which generated a profit of £14.2 billion in 2020. In the past, gambling has been classified as a problem that mainly affects men, but research by GambleAware in January this year found that the number of women treated for gambling had doubled in five years, with up to a million women were at risk of gambling-related problems. It added that this figure may represent only a small proportion of women who suffer gambling-related harm.
Bev’s gambling problems began around 16 years ago. “I was entering a contest on a popular television website and a gambling pop-up came up and I was like, ‘I’m going to try that,'” she said. She had never played before: “I just didn’t care. It felt like throwing money away.”
After depositing £10, she quickly won £800. “I couldn’t believe the money was mine,” she says. “I then started depositing more and more and that £800 went away very quickly. After that I was hooked.”
An early win was also “the hook” that prompted Derbyshire’s 29-year-old Stacey to return for more when her gambling addiction began. Their poison were slot machines and scratch cards. “It’s fast and totally stunning to stare at the spinning wheels,” she says.
The numbing effect of gambling is a significant draw for many women who gamble, according to experts. Liz Karter MBE, a leading UK therapist for women’s gambling, says the oblivion that gambling offers can provide a space away from the stresses of everyday life. “You’ll rarely hear women talk about loving the buzz or the excitement of gambling or loving the praise that winning gives them like a lot of men,” she says The Independent.
“For women, gambling is about losing yourself in an experience where you end up thinking and feeling nothing. Complete concentration on gambling is a distraction from stressful thoughts and feelings. It is an escape from overwhelming responsibilities and fears.”
For Tracey, 58, from Berkshire, it’s a familiar story. “My gambling has never been about money,” she says. “It was sketchy. When I was playing, I didn’t worry about anything…playing took me out of my reality.”
Things began to fall apart for Bev long before that fateful Christmas, and have only gotten worse over the years. As the person in charge of household finances, she had easy access to money, but unbeknownst to her loved ones, she had exhausted all her credit cards and taken out loans to pay them off, which went straight back into her gambling fund. She also borrowed money from friends, family and even work colleagues. “I lied to everyone I met,” she said. “I was in a terrible place mentally.
“My husband and I both have good salaries and I have often waited until midnight on payday for the money to come into my account each month. My husband was asleep in bed and within a few hours I screwed everything up.”
All the women talked about the “ease” of online gambling and its 24/7 availability. Tracey describes the internet as “the crack cocaine of gambling”. She says: “As I started playing, places opened and closed. I was the first in and the last out, but it was still the end of the day.”
Before going online, Stacey had traveled back and forth between different bookies to avoid drawing attention to her gambling problem. However, online it was very different. “It was so easy. Nobody knew what I was doing.”
Karter makes a direct connection between the rise of gambling among women and its increasing ubiquity. “We have gambling in our homes, offices and purses,” she says. “However, we must look at any addiction in the context of social and mental health. We are seeing a rise in stress, depression and anxiety in women and this is leading to self-medicating through gambling… it feels all too easy to get lost in the virtual world of online gambling.”
All three women found the support they needed through an all women’s retreat Gordon Moody, part of a network of organizations within the National Gambling Treatment Service that offer a range of treatments. “I walked in there 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 “very skeptical” that the service would help her, but describes it as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
While all three women describe themselves as recovering from gambling, some of the consequences are harder to get past.
“Payday loans, credit cards—my debt was enormous,” says Stacey. “I was moving from house to house and living with friends because I was getting nowhere with my bad credit. It’s a long-term gambling harm that I’m still working on – it will be a long time before I’ll be able to get a house.”
Bev wants major reforms in the gaming sector. “One of the worst things that happened when I tried to stop gambling was when the companies wrote you down as a ‘VIP customer’ and said ‘We haven’t seen you in a while – here’s £200 in your account ‘. . That was so bad.
“I also think they should vet new account holders, like when they apply for a loan,” she adds. “The number of times I’ve deposited thousands of pounds in a very short space of time…they must have noticed I had a problem but they just encouraged it more.”
A government white paper Addressing such issues is long overdue and expected to be released later this month. MP Carolyn Harris, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling-Related Harm, has called the need for affordability reviews, spending caps and independent ratings for new users “overwhelming”.
Stacey, Bev and Tracey all want more people to understand that this is a devastating condition that can and does affect women – but that help is available.
“It’s so important to reach out and talk to someone,” says Tracey. “No matter where you come from or how old you are – you will never be alone.”
Stacey agrees. “I don’t want anyone to feel as lonely as I do. If you can overcome the shame, there are so many places you can go that specifically help women where you will not be judged. The first step is scary, but it’s worth it. There is hope.”
For problem gambling information, support and advice, please contact:
Gordon Moody (gordonmoody.org.uk), Gamble Aware (begambleaware.org), Gamblers Anonymous, which runs a series of “women-preferred” online and real-world meetups (gamblersanonymous.org.uk), BetKnowMore (betknowmoreuk.org) and GamCare (www.gamcare.org.uk).