The number of women seeking help for gambling addiction has risen by a shocking 76 per cent in the past year.And new research suggests that for women – unlike men – it’s a method of coping with emotional trauma. Sally Williams investigates
One evening in 2018, Jessica went for a night out at the dog races.Luck was on her side and she won £5,000 from a £1 bet.
But what should have been a dream come true for the cash-strapped mental health nurse – who could now pay off her car loan – was the start of a slide into a gambling addiction.
For Jessica, now 27, a win at the dogs or on an online game – to which she eventually lost £10,000 – was a way to numb the trauma of her troubled past.
Mary, 46, works in PR and lives in Devon, near her cousin, Naomi, 42, a part-time administrator.
About four years ago, Mary noticed a change in her cousin. Whenever she dropped in, Naomi would be in her bedroom and her two children – then eight and 11 – would be fending for themselves downstairs. Initially, Mary just assumed her cousin was feeling low. She was dealing with the aftermath of a messy divorce – Naomi had discovered her husband was having an affair – as well as grieving for her recently deceased brother.
But then she started asking Mary for money. ‘Just small amounts at first, £10 or £20 once a fortnight,’ remembers Mary. ‘It wasn’t a big deal. Then larger sums, like £100.’ Shortly afterwards, Mary confronted her cousin. ‘She admitted she was gambling at night on her phone.
Mostly slot machines, but sometimes horses.
Over a few months it all came out: she had 11 bank cards and several payday loans and had built up a debt of £70,000 over 18 months. She was depressed and using gambling as an escape.’
Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist and founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London, believes that problematic gambling (gambling in a way that is disruptive or damaging both to the gambler and those around them) in women often seems to be linked to trauma.In an in-depth audit of 80 women aged 25-55 referred to her clinic since 2016, Professor Bowden-Jones noticed a significant proportion had experienced a traumatic life event such as an abusive marriage or sudden loss. Of the group studied, most played online casino games (such as roulette, slots, bingo, cards) and some had debts of more than £100,000.
‘A lot of the young men I see have inherited a vulnerability to pathological gambling – they gamble compulsively without having had any trauma. In the women, I don’t see that genetic disposition. You normally hear a very complex story.Attachment, separation issues, mental health issues and trauma are all part of it.’
Bowden-Jones stresses that not enough research has been done to make any firm conclusions on gender-based triggers for problematic gambling. But, based on her observations, female gamblers tend to experience an additional layer of distress from the stigma that comes from being a woman with a gambling problem.‘I’m not saying there isn’t any shame in men, but there is an enormous amount in women.’