Woman who fell into £25,000 of debt says gambling addiction is not just a man's problem

Harriet Brewis
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Woman who fell into £25,000 of debt says gambling addiction is not just a man's problem

Woman who fell into £25,000 of debt says gambling addiction is not just a man's problem

A woman is calling for more to be done to help female gambling addicts, saying there is a misconception that it is only a man's problem.

Katie Clarke, 31, sought help for her gambling addiction in July 2018 but was surprised at the lack of publicised support, particularly for women gamblers.

Ms Clarke, whose problem left her in £25,000 of debt, decided to create her own support network by documenting her journey on social media.

Now in remission, she said she was struck by how many other women responded, also in search of support.

Figures released by GamCare, the UK’s leading provider of problem gambling support, show the number of women calling its helpline has risen sharply in the past five years.

It said 2,439 women sought help in 2014, compared to 4,129 last year.

Katie says her 'light bulb' moment was realising she needed to talk to someone (Katie Clarke)

An extra £3.9 million has also been pledged to expand the National Gambling Treatment Service, while there is growing pressure on the government to introduce a gambling industry tax.

Ms Clarke, from Chelmsford, Essex, told the Standard: “I began documenting my journey on YouTube and Twitter because I knew I needed to share my story and turn social media into a support network.

“I’ve been amazed at people’s reaction, with so many people telling me how good it is to hear a female voice speak about these issues, and with women contacting me to ask where they can go for help.

“I wanted to put myself out there, be brutally honest and just say to the world: it's OK to be a woman who gambles, it's OK to admit when that gambling becomes a problem, and it's OK to ask for help."

Katie’s story

Katie was seven years old when she had her first taste of gambling.

Every week, her mother would buy a National Lottery ticket, and one afternoon she let Katie choose the numbers.

“I got four out of six – I couldn’t believe it. I’d never felt so proud in my life,” she said.

“For the first time I really felt as though I had some sort of importance, some real purpose – like I had something to contribute. That's when the seeds were sown.”

Katie began playing scratch cards constantly when she reached the legal age of 16 – spending a seemingly harmless amount of £2 or £5 at a time. It wasn’t till she turned 21 that she realised she could do it online.

“The first time I started worrying was when I spent £90 in one day. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time so it felt like a lot. Still, I didn’t stop. Then things started escalating.”

Katie’s biggest thrill came when she won £5,000 on slots, which she and her then boyfriend spent on holidays and furniture for their flat.

“I felt sick on those holidays because I didn’t feel like I deserved them. I hadn’t earnt them – the money felt cheap, almost like I’d cheated.”

Her partner was the only person who knew she had developed a gambling habit, but then she began hiding things from him, too.

“I started taking my phone to the toilet or turning my back so that he couldn’t see what I was doing,” she explained.

The advent of online gambling has turned mobile devices into betting shops, according to support charities (Unsplash)

“I was burning through my salary so quickly, to the point that by 7am on payday my bank account would be empty.

“So I thought, right, if I can win £5,000 again it’ll all fix itself. I just have to take out a few payday loans. I genuinely believed the only way to get out of this mess was to keep gambling until I won £1 million. Then I could sort my life out.”

Katie, who works for a removals company, estimates she took out 50 payday loans over six years, along with six phone contracts.

“I was getting the mobile contracts then selling the phones for cash – that became my rent and food money, since my entire salary was going towards the scratch cards and slots.”

“Those payday loans go into your account within seconds. It was when I got out my last £50, spun it online and I won nothing that I realised I had hit rock bottom.

“I was told I couldn’t take out anymore loans or phone contracts, and so I said to myself, that’s it – I’m totally f****ed. But it was also the moment I said said to myself: ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to admit there’s a problem here and hold myself accountable’. I’d become a burden to myself and other people.”

By this point, she was in £25,000 of debt.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t even know help was available. I just typed into Google ‘gambling counselling in my local area’ and found out that Breakeven had an office a five-minute walk from my house. I couldn’t believe it – it felt like fate.

Katie (left) and a friend: the 31-year-old said her family and friends had been

Breakeven, a charity offering free problem gambling counselling, has ten offices across the UK and takes on between 200 and 250 new clients each year.

“It’s honestly amazing. They called me within an hour of me emailing them and I was in a counselling session within a week,” said Katie.

“They’ve given me 12 free sessions, and I honestly can’t tell you the impact they’ve had on my life. Since then, even though I’ve had my phone with me the whole time, I haven't even thought about going on a website and gambling. I’m so proud of that.

“But the real lightbulb moment for me was my decision to seek help. As an addict, only you can take the step to get help – no one else can do it for you. My friends, family and colleagues have been amazing, but getting counselling was my choice, and I honestly believe that’s the most important thing.”

A changing landscape

Ian Semel, CEO of Breakeven, believes the landscape of gambling in the UK has changed over the past few years.

“When Breakeven first started, the only women we saw were people who were affected by gambling – wives, sisters, mothers of sufferers,” he told the Standard.

“Now we’re seeing a lot more women coming forward as gamblers, especially with the advent of online gambling.

“Gone are the days when women were just gambling on bingo, now there are plenty of women who are betting on sports or playing in online casinos. Now, your phone’s your betting shop, your laptop’s your betting shop and it’s all 24-7.

Mr Semel, who has worked with the charity for 20 years, believes the steady increase of female clients over the years is largely to due to society’s normalisation of gambling.

“I can't be sure whether there are more women gambling now, or just more coming forward for treatment. But you only have to look at the advertising – gambling’s become normalised in this country. So why shouldn’t it affect women as much as men?

“Gambling knows no bias – any walk of life, any sex, any gender, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a destructive, hidden addiction that can affect anyone."

Actress Sheridan Smith played a struggling mother with a gambling habit in the ITV drama 'Cleaning Up' (Sister Pictures)

Breakeven offers support for their clients' family and friends, as well as the gamblers themselves. Mr Semel says the charity strives to improve awareness and understanding of the problem, since it is more “invisible” than substance abuse and other forms of addiction.

Gamblers Anonymous does good open sessions but ours are one-to-one, which is helpful if people don’t feel comfortable with sharing their issues in front of a group of people,” he said.

“We’ve found this particularly helpful among women, as they seem to feel a greater stigma around the problem. They’re ashamed to admit it.”

Mr Semel said he and his team had also noticed some differences in the general characteristics of male and female gamblers.

“The big thing that shouts out to me is that men seem to be chasing the money, whereas women are chasing the buzz or the feeling it gives them. With women there often seems to be emotional anguish behind their problem – it often seems to be a form of escapism for them.”

Katie agreed with this. “When you’re gambling you're escaping from things in your life, pains you haven’t dealt with," she said.

“There’s so much more behind an addiction than everyone thinks. Over the course of my recovery, I’ve realised this kind of compulsion and dependency stems from childhood trauma for a lot of people.

“That’s why I think talking about it is so important. Friends, family members, colleagues – it doesn’t matter who – just as long as it’s someone who will want to be there for you.

“I chose to speak out because I want women to understand that they’re not alone.

“There is help out there – we all just need to take that first step and find it."