Gambling in 2020 has moved well beyond fruit machines in pubs and trips down to the bookies. Today, you can pretty much gamble on anything via the internet and, as a result, gambling addiction is on the rise, especially in women. Figures from the gambling addiction charity GamCare show that the number of women reporting a problematic relationship with gambling has risen by over a third in the last year, which is more than double the rate of men in the same period. However, the vast majority of calls made to the National Gambling Helpline are still made by men, with just 1% of calls estimated to be made by women. So, why is the impact of gambling on women still largely underreported and why is it an addiction that’s increasingly affecting women?
“When it comes to gambling addiction, women often tell me that they don’t feel like they belong in the male group at all,” says Liz Karter, a leading UK therapist specialising in gambling addiction in women. “If you look at social media, or the media at large, and you hear the voice of a gambling addict, they tend to be male. To hear the male perspective often alienates women because their experiences are different.” Meanwhile, gambling platforms have adapted to specifically appeal to women, creating even more disconnect between women gamblers and the support systems in place for addicts.
“Anecdotally, we experience that women are less open and there is a stigma associated with being a gambling woman," says Pamela Roberts, psychotherapist and addictions programme manager at Priory’s Woking Hospital in Surrey. "Certain stigmas develop with addictions because of social norms – for example, online gaming disorder is associated with young men and so an older woman has to overcome the shame of this stigma, plus the shame anyway about their addiction, before being able to talk about what’s really going on.”
The majority of studies looking into gambling addiction focus on men, and the gambling addiction charity GamCare suggest that women are often left out of these stats because they’re more likely to speak to a friend rather than seek professional help. “There’s a lack of understanding about what gambling addiction truly is,” says Karter. “I’ve worked with women who’ve said, ‘I wish I had a substance problem because people don’t understand, I can’t just stop’. We understand substance abuse [as being motivated by] self medication, but with gambling, we get stuck at the money.”
What Motivates Women Gamblers & How Can It Spiral Into Addiction?
Karter goes on to explain that ‘gambling addiction’ is a blanket diagnosis; in fact, the motives behind gambling and the potential impact on mental health is incredibly varied, and is different for men and women. Whereas men look for the anticipation of a big win and the attention that comes with it, Karter says women often decide to gamble as a form of escapism. “Women tend to choose products that are simple and repetitive, like bingo and slots. In a way it acts like a form of mindfulness or meditation,” she explains. “They can block out the problems at home and work, and it’s like a protective shield against anxious thoughts and feelings.”
Lisa started gambling when she was eight and her dad first introduced her to cards. Later, she started playing games for money as a teenager and, as an adult, she went to casinos. “The bright lights were like an escape, especially as I got older,” says Lisa. Just before her 30th birthday, she won big: £127,000 on one game of poker. Rather than calling it quits, Lisa upped her bets from £100 to £500. She ended up losing her house and declaring bankruptcy in 2011. In total she believes she’s lost about £500,000.
“My light bulb moment came after I borrowed £2,000 from my son to pay off a payday loan. Instead of paying it off, I gambled it,” says Lisa. “Within an hour it was gone, and I sat in the carpark thinking, ‘You’re 45, and if you don’t get help, you’re not going to see your 50th birthday. You’re either going to end up in prison or dead.’”
What Support Is There For Women Gambling Addicts?
GamCare, Gamblers Anonymous, and the Gordon Moody Association are just a few of the organisations that support people with gambling addiction. Lisa connected with a male friend who’d had experience with Gamblers Anonymous. However, she says, “I speak to a lot of women who say they bet online, and they’re scared to go to a GA meeting. GA can be so male dominated, and there’s a fear of sitting in a room of men and telling them everything that’s gone on in your life.”
Just as motives behind gambling can differ between men and women, their experience of treatment also varies. Support may look the same, but Karter says “men will generally stop gambling behaviour, something that’s possible in four weeks, but then see that as their job done. Women are much more likely to look at the underlying reasons as to why the gambling behaviour began. This could be a drive to please others and be perfect.”
People may experience gambling differently based on gender, but Roberts also highlights that addiction is a deeply personal thing and there’s a lot of different types of treatments out there. “Priory hospitals like ours in Woking have 28 day Addiction Treatment Programmes – which involve abstinence from addictive behaviour, and support with digital detox if online gambling,” she says, “Group therapy helps reduce shame as a patient is amongst people who understand, and people can face the negative consequences without judgment. We work with our clients in a holistic way, focused on the addiction but not solely.”
With Gamblers Anonymous groups, apps such as GAMSTOP, and support from GamCare and similar organisations, there are lots of different treatment options out there, but the first step is making sure that people don't brush off a gambling addiction or see it as shameful, says Roberts. “Addictions, or any disorders, are driven by a complex multitude of drivers," she continues. "We treat addiction as a disorder, an illness that has a life of its own once it’s been triggered. It’s primary, progressive, chronic, and can be fatal."
If you or someone you love have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, visit GamCare or call their support line on 0808 8020 133.