Jack Ritchie was 23 years old when he decided to uproot his life. Since graduating from university, he’d been living at home with his parents in Sheffield and working in a pensions department. But he was an independent young man and felt he wanted to do something better with his life.
He wasn’t enjoying his job and wanted to break free from the routines and habits that had come to define him. At the start of 2017, he quit his job and spent three months volunteering in Kenya helping budding entrepreneurs. He enjoyed the experience so much, he followed it by getting a job teaching English in Vietnam.
It was an exciting adventure – an opportunity to help others, to see the world and, perhaps, to give himself a fresh start.
Jack arrived in Hanoi in August 2017. He loved Vietnam. On Facebook, he posted updates about how happy he was to be experiencing a new culture and meeting different people and he was surrounded by a large circle of new friends. That November, however, just three months after arriving in Hanoi, Jack called his parents on Skype and revealed to them that “the old problem is back.”
Since he was 17 years old, Jack had struggled with a gambling addiction. It began when he and his mates in Sheffield would go to the bookies during their school lunch hour and play the fixed odds betting terminals with their dinner money. It was supposed to be just a bit of harmless fun.
Very early on, however, Jack won £1,000 on successive spins, and gambling quickly became a compulsion. Over the next seven years, he would lose thousands of pounds gambling at bookies and online. The deep, lasting damage wasn’t just to his bank balance but to his mental health and self esteem.
For 18 months before the Skype call from Hanoi, Jack had managed to keep his addiction in check. Now, however, he’d suffered a relapse – likely lured by an advertisement for an online gambling company. He’d lost £1,500. Jack’s parents spoke to him for an hour, and he assured them that he was all right.
Three days later, however, Jack took his own life at the age of 24. His parents received an email from their son with a note attached. “I’m past the point of controlling myself, and I’m not coming back from this one,” Jack wrote.
“Jack was upset that the addiction controlled him, and couldn’t see a way out,” his mother, Liz Ritchie, told HuffPost UK.
“He had been free for so long, and suddenly he was dragged back into it. He didn’t think he’d ever be free,” said his father, Charles Ritchie.
Across the UK, there’s a growing recognition that gambling is a serious problem, particularly among young people. In England, Scotland, and Wales, 55,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 16 are estimated to be problem gamblers, and approximately 350,000 have gambled within the past week – more than have used illegal drugs or smoked tobacco or e-cigarettes, according to a new report from the Gambling Commission. Overall, approximately 2 million adults and children are at risk of developing a gambling problem.
In response, the charity GambleAware and the NHS have been ramping up their gambling support services. In June, they opened the country’s first gambling clinic for children and young people aged 13 to 25 as part of the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London. Counselling and other support services for adults are also expanding.
In September, the NHS opened the Northern Gambling Service in Leeds, the first service of its kind outside of London and one of up to 14 new gambling-focused clinics set to open under the NHS Long Term Plan. Two other clinics, in Manchester and Sunderland, are set to open in early 2020.
“There are growing links between gambling addiction and mental health problems such as stress, depression and even suicide – with countless stories of lives lost and families destroyed as a result,” said Claire Murdoch, NHS national director for mental health.
Liz and Charles Ritchie said they were initially unaware of the damage gambling can cause to mental health. They were told Jack’s gambling was just a “teenage boy behavioural thing” that he would grow out of, not realising at first how serious his addiction actually was.
After Jack told them about his gambling, they made numerous attempts to help him quit. In Sheffield, Charles took Jack around all the local bookies so that they could “self-exclude” by posting Jack’s photo behind the counter and ban him from betting at each one. When Jack moved on to online gambling, his parents purchased software for his computer that blocked gambling websites. The software was effective – Jack didn’t gamble for about a year, and his parents believed it was no longer an issue. When the subscription for the software expired, however, Jack was lured back to the gambling sites by emails and marketing materials from companies offering free bets. “What they do is predatory,” Liz Ritchie said.
The important thing, Jack’s parents felt, was that he recognised he had a problem with gambling and wanted to tackle it. “Jack was a bright lad and told us gambling insulted his intelligence,” said Charles Ritchie. “He knew with electronic games, he could not win long term, as that’s how they were set up. He realised what he was doing was stupid, but the addiction side of him over-rode the intelligent and rational part.”
Despite gambling through university, Jack graduated with a 2:1. He returned home to live with his parents and got a graduate job as a bid writer. Suddenly earning a real, adult salary and being able to qualify for bank loans and credit cards had a detrimental effect on his gambling, however. Over a period of two months, Jack lost £8,000. He then took out a £4,000 bank loan and lost it gambling within three days.
Jack told his parents he felt his gambling was out of control and that he needed help. His GP referred him to the NHS’s general mental health service, but this offered no gambling addiction specialism. He tried seeing a private therapist, but they too had no specialised training in gambling addiction. He went to a few meetings of Gamblers Anonymous but didn’t identify with the other people there, as they were mainly older men.
“There’s not enough specialist help for gambling addictions,” Liz Ritchie said.
It affects your opinion of yourself and causes a feeling of self-loathing that you will never be free of this gambling addiction. Losing money is not the thing that kills you.”Liz Ritchie
With the new NHS clinics in London and Leeds, along with a National Gambling Helpline that now offers 24/7 support over the telephone, that’s starting to change. But Jack’s parents say that more still needs to be done. They want the government to impose tougher regulations on the gambling industry, which they accuse of “peddling deliberately addictive products”. And, more than anything else, they want to encourage extensive research into the links between gambling addiction and suicide. In November 2018, they launched Gambling With Lives, a campaign and pressure group whose mission is to raise awareness of the dangers of gambling addiction and support families who have lost loved ones due to gambling.
“Gambling-related suicide is such a hidden issue,” Liz Ritchie told HuffPost UK. “No one entirely knows what the true picture is.”
The true harm caused by gambling addiction is not really the amount of money lost, but what it does to someone mentally, Jack’s parents said. “It affects your opinion of yourself and causes a feeling of self-loathing that you will never be free of this gambling addiction,” Liz Ritchie said. “Losing money is not the thing that kills you.”
In July, GambleAware and the Gambling Commission published the results of a small-scale UK research project examining the links between problem gambling and suicide. The study found that 19% of problem gamblers had thought about suicide in the past year, compared with 4% of non-problem gamblers and non-gamblers. Moreover, 5% of problem gamblers reported that they had attempted suicide in the past year, compared with 0.6% of those who showed no sign of problem gambling.
John McCracken, director of commissioning of treatment at GambleAware, sai gambling is a “public health issue” and that online gambling had made the habit easier to hide for addicts. “They can gamble any time of day or night without leaving their home. There are no time constraints like a bookie which closes at night.
Research from a larger study published in Sweden last year revealed that the suicide rate among people with a gambling disorder is 15-times higher than it is among the general population.
MP Tracey Crouch, who resigned as minister for sport last year amid a row over a delay of reducing the stakes of fixed odds betting terminals, told HuffPost UK she hasn’t met a “single gambling addict who hasn’t contemplated suicide.”
“Some of these were people who had suffered monetary losses and had secretly mortgaged their homes,” she said. “They felt the only way out was to attempt suicide.”
Crouch said that gambling should be logged as part of a coroner’s report into suicides, so that officials can start to understand the true scale of the problem.
Liz Ritchie agrees. “No one is talking about the link between gambling and suicides, and these deaths need to be properly recorded and monitored,” she said.
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Every suicide is a tragedy, and we are absolutely committed to protecting vulnerable people from the risks of gambling related harm.
“We have secured a series of commitments from five leading gambling operators that will see a ten-fold increase in funding towards treatment and support for problem gamblers.
“In the past year, we have also introduced a wave of tougher measures to protect vulnerable people, including cutting the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals, bringing in tighter age and identity checks for online gambling, and expanding national specialist support through the NHS Long Term Plan.”
A spokesperson for the Association of British Bookmakers told HuffPost UK they supported the creation of new NHS gambling treatment centres which will supplement existing services. “Our industry has pledged additional funding and through our industry’s funding over more than 20 years, charitable services are able to provide free of charge treatment, support and advice services for anyone affected by gambling,” the spokesperson said.
Claire Murdoch, the NHS national director for mental health, said that such reforms are long overdue. “It is high time that betting giants who spend billions on marketing and advertising and reap enormous profits from this misery step up to the plate and take their responsibilities seriously,” she told HuffPost UK.
For families like the Ritchies, these are welcome reforms, but still not nearly enough.
“Gambling killed our son,” Liz Ritchie said. “More now needs to be done to stop others taking their lives by suicide due to this addiction.”
If you feel you or someone you know needs help with a gambling addiction, contact the National Gambling Helpline. Operated by GamCare and funded by GambleAware, it operates 24-hours a day and is available on Freephone: 0808 8020 133 or via web chat