A gamble too far

Easy access, depression or unemployment – whatever the cause there’s been a massive increase in men in their 20s developing gambling…

Easy access, depression or unemployment – whatever the cause there's been a massive increase in men in their 20s developing gambling problems, writes CAROLINE MADDEN

DOSTOEVSKY. Keith Gillespie. Steve Rayner. winner of TV3's The Apprentice. It's an unlikely line-up, but there is a common thread. All three successfully battled with the same personal demon – an addiction to gambling. But this problem doesn't just affect literary geniuses, ex-Premiership footballers and reality TV contestants with a flair for persuasive sales patter.

Since the recession hit, gambling has turned from recreation to addiction for growing numbers of people from all walks of life, and the financial repercussions can be devastating.

Dr Fiona Weldon of Dublin’s Rutland Centre has noticed a huge increase in the number of men in their 20s getting into serious financial difficulty as a direct result of gambling.

Typically the young men she has encountered have debts ranging from €30,000 up to about €300,000, but several have racked up debts as high as €1.5 or €2 million. They get loans from “all sorts of places”, she says, and borrow from one source to pay off another. “The complexity of it is huge,” she says.

A spokeswoman for Hope House rehabilitation centre in Foxford, Co Mayo says that initially, gamblers let their credit cards build up. They also open credit lines with bookies. The next step is to start borrowing from places like credit unions, and sometimes they even progress to loan sharks.

“Some gamblers, if they have access to money at work . . . would steal from work,” she says. “We would have had people with huge debts. Naturally, it puts everything in danger. You may not have the money to pay the mortgage.”

Unfortunately the crushing financial consequences of gambling addiction can be so severe that it drives people to the edge. According to Dr Weldon, a very significant amount of people who present with a gambling problem are very close to suicide, or have already tried to take their life.

“It can lead to a place of such extreme financial stress that people will view it as almost a way out,” she says.

The shame of having to confess their financial problems, and admit that they have been deceiving loved ones, can be devastating. “Family members might be aware of money problems but often won’t be aware that the credit cards are maxed out or the [bank] account has gone down,” she says.

It may seem counter-intuitive that gambling addiction is becoming more prevalent at a time when people have less disposable income, but Dr Weldon has seen a marked increase in the past two or three years.

In the past, only about 1 per cent of the Rutland Centre’s clients presented with gambling addiction as their primary problem. This has now risen to about 7 per cent, and the number is higher still when clients who also have alcohol or drug problems are factored in.

Recessions are known to have an impact on all types of addictions, she says.

“One of the maintaining factors for addiction is stress, or boredom,” she says. So if people are out of a job, or struggling to survive from one day to the next, the rate of all types of addiction, including gambling, tends to rise.

The Hope House spokeswoman believes the increase in the number of people developing gambling problems is partly to do with availability. Not only has there been an increase in the number of bookies around the country, but gambling is now easily accessible at home because of the proliferation of online betting sites.

There tends to be two main types of gamblers – the thrill-seekers who are chasing an adrenalin rush, and those who use it as an escape, whether from boredom, stress, anxiety or a mood problem. As with alcohol, gambling tends to start off as a social or recreational activity, and for most people it remains so. But for others, it can develop into a problem and over time may progress into a compulsion.

Dr Weldon explains that gambling is a “process addiction” which means that unlike alcoholism where the person becomes dependent on a substance, it is the activity itself that can be psychologically addictive.

“In gambling, you’ve got multiple exposures to multiple experiences of losses, which desensitise you to those losses. It’s similar to watching a lot of violence on TV,” she explains. And then every so often you’ll have a win, which acts as an “intermittent reinforcement”.

So how do you know if your gambling activities have gone beyond an interest and turned into a problem? If you’re spending more time or money on gambling than you intended to; if gambling preoccupies most of your thoughts during the day; if you find yourself betting on random sports which aren’t played in Ireland, like ice hockey, and you’ve started telling lies to cover up your activities, then alarm bells should start ringing.

The problem for friends and family is that it is much easier for a person to hide a gambling problem than a substance addiction.

“Very often they are very good at keeping themselves compartmentalised and keeping their worries hidden,” Dr Weldon says.

A spouse or partner will know that something is not right, but generally they suspect that the person is having an affair because they’re being so secretive. “In a way, they are having an affair – with gambling. All their time and effort is going into that relationship,” the spokeswoman for Hope House says.

Initially it can almost be a relief when they discover that the issue is gambling, but then the truth starts to trickle out and this brings huge disappointment. “They feel like they’ve been living with a fraud [who’s been leading] a double life,” she says.

Generally gamblers only go for treatment when they reach a crisis point. They may have been caught stealing, or their financial problems might have come to a head. Very often the person’s employer will be the driving force, giving them an ultimatum to sort out their problem or else they’ll be out of a job.

Another common trigger is the breakdown of a relationship because of the person’s gambling.

Dr Weldon says success of any treatment depends on how the person engages with the process, and their level of acceptance. There can be a huge amount of denial, she says.

In the Rutland Centre, group therapy is used to help break down this denial process, and to “see yourself in others” which means that the person identifies with the behaviour associated with gambling addiction. They also work on helping the individual to understand their personal triggers, and the role that addiction is playing in their life.

“Certainly sobriety and recovery is possible,” she says. As with other kinds of addiction, about 40 to 50 per cent of people tend to relapse within the first three months. Generally about half of those will get back on track. After a year, about 60 to 70 per cent of people will be still “on track”.

In terms of tackling the person’s financial problems, the Rutland Centre will sometimes suggest that people contact a money adviser such as Mabs, the money advice bureau. The problem is that even if you get sound financial advice in terms of how to deal with debt, for gamblers the solution is “only ever a gamble away”, Dr Weldon says.

“Unless sobriety is maintained there can always be that call – ‘just one big win is all I need and that will be it sorted’. With any addiction, once something has been formed as a way of coping . . . every single day, every time something goes wrong it will always be an option,” she explains.

“It is literally about being able to manage that place that the mind goes every single time it happens.”

According to Hope House, the individual must take responsibility for doing certain “recovery practices” every single day, which they learn in treatment. “If they do, there is a wonderful chance they will be successful,” the spokeswoman says.

There tends to be two main types of gamblers – the thrill-seekers who are chasing an adrenalin rush, and those who use it as an escape, whether from boredom, stress, anxiety or a mood problem