As a military wife, Mina*, 35, was often left home alone with two children under the age of three. Her husband Raj was away for work a lot, and when the family moved to Wales, she was far from relatives and friends, too. Desperately lonely, Mina sought an escape online – in gambling.
It started quietly. Working long night shifts as a carer, she would place bets of £20 to pass the time. Soon, all her weekly wages were being funnelled into her addiction. After gambling away a £5,000 loan intended for a housing deposit in two days, she had no choice but to tell her husband.
“I felt so helpless,” says Mina, who had to explain how she had maxed out her account and a secret credit card. “My husband wasn’t a professional and couldn’t understand – we would argue because I would promise him that I wouldn’t place another bet and then go and do it again the next day.”
After four years of broken promises and repeated relapses, Mina attempted to take her own life in March 2019. “As a problem gambler I don’t think you can say that you are ever cured,” says the mother-of-two, who has now been in recovery for 18 months.“You have to live and fight with it every day.”
Two million people in the UK are thought to be either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction. Over the past five years, the number of women reporting a problem has risen at more than twice the rate of men, from 2,303 in 2014/15 to 3,109 in 2019, according to figures from Gamcare, which also provides support and treatment for gambling related harms.
“Problem gambling starts when someone starts to depend on gambling to change a low mood for the better, then they develop a dependency on it,” explains Liz Karter, a therapist who specialises in this area. “It is a coping strategy that goes horribly wrong.”
Almost 70% of women who gamble use apps and websites, with slots a firm favourite – accounting for nearly half of all online activity reported by women.
The Gordon Moody Association, which helps problem gamblers, has seen a huge surge in demand since the pandemic, with a rise in women accessing its services – a YouGov study published in July 2019 found that among women with a gambling problem, around a third (35%) were from a BAME background.
“It has all been so secretive,” says Mina, who has told only immediate family about her problem. Lockdown made reaching out more difficult due to the lack of face-to face contact with her family, she adds, and she is grateful for the online counselling sessions that have helped her though a difficult year.
When Cathy* from Leicester lost her job as manager of a betting shop, she never once thought it could be due to her own gambling problem.
It was only several years later when she turned to gambling as a means of dealing with her health anxiety that she realised she was an addict.
She had promised her wife Vicky that she would invest a £20,000 inheritance she’d received from her grandmother into a Help-to-Buy ISA. But Cathy gambled the money away, losing more than £200,000 in two years.
Unable to pay their rent, refused credit loans and with more than 10 credit cards registered under both their names, Cathy finally came clean to her wife. Her mum took out a loan, she and Vicky entered counselling together, but despite the support of her family, Cathy struggled to fight the urge to stop gambling.
“I would sit in couples counselling and lie promising that I hadn’t gambled thinking the whole time about the bets I had placed,” says the 36-year-old.
“Many say they wish they had a drug or an alcohol problem, because then people would comprehend just how addictive gambling can be.”
At her lowest point, when she was caught stealing from her mother’s bank account, Cathy contemplated suicide. “I didn’t know any other way out of it because I didn’t like the person that I was,” she reflects. “I lied and I cheated everybody. It took over my life to the point that I didn’t want to live anymore.”
She credits Gordon Moody staff with saving her life. “Admitting I had a gambling addiction was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do,” she says. “I feel so ashamed of what I have done and I feel so much guilt – it is such a hard addiction to get over and it is so easy to hide.”
Exceptionally high levels of guilt and shame can stop women coming forward for treatment, says Liz Karter, who suggests it is society’s misconception that gambling is always a conscious choice.
“Often women tell me that they’ve tried to talk about their problem with a friend or a family member and people don’t understand why they do it,” says Karter. “Many say they wish they had a drug or an alcohol problem, because then people would comprehend just how addictive gambling can be.
The idea of gambling as a ‘man’s problem’ also leads to fewer women seeking help – with a higher proportion of women than men citing stigma as a barrier.
“It’s not seen as something that women do, but yet you watch television all day every day and women are bombarded and targeted by all-singing all-dancing pink fluffy adverts enticing them into bingo sites,” says Kelly Field, 38.
The mother-of-one from the north West believes the visibility of gambling advertising throughout lockdown, at a time when people may be furloughed or working from home, but financially precarious, has been highly irresponsible.
Field lost nearly £70,000 gambling after taking some extended time off work. She immersed herself in the anonymity of gambling apps – a world away from the traditionally male-dominated bookies and betting shops – spending up to eight hours a day on her phone.
“You can be sat there and no matter what is going on in the real world nobody online knows what is happening in your life; nobody knows who you are,” says the 38-year-old, who used multiple credit cards and her overdraft to fund her addiction. “You can just sit and play – that is the danger in it.”
Even though there is no one-size fits all approach, seeking help will be the best thing you do, suggests Wight, who with the support of Beacon Counselling Trust, started talking therapy and is now in recovery. “There is a lot of shame and guilt attached to being a female gambler, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “You can live gamble-free.”
*Some names have been changed and surnamed omitted to offer anonymity.
The National Gambling Helpline provides information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling harms. Advisers are available 24 hours a day on freephone 0808 8020 133 or via web chat at www.gamcare.org.uk.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).