Bringing a hidden addiction into the open

Problem-gambling among women aggressively increased during pandemic lockdowns in the U.K., and is causing concern to experts in the field.

Global pandemic lockdowns led to communities across the world seeking diverse avenues of stress-relievers and entertainment.  However, the worrisome aspect of these lockdowns is the negative impact on mental health and aggravating conditions like problem gambling and gambling disorders. As popular actor Ben Afleck succinctly puts it, “The thing about online gambling is that it’s never away, it’s always accessible. And so, if you have an issue with gambling, it’s designed to take advantage of that.”

Among many studies done on the effects of pandemic lockdowns on online gambling, a research study by the Lund University of Sweden concluded that with the closure of sports establishments during the pandemic, people turned their interest to online gambling.

According to studies done, the global online gambling market was expected to grow from $64.13 billion in July 2020 to $72.02 billion in July 2021 at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 12.3%, and is expected to reach $112.09 billion by 2025.

Moreover, online gambling is causing great concern globally, because of its easy and speedy accessibility.  The need to escape the stress and boredom of pandemic lockdowns was a major reason for people seeking out online gambling sources, which has already been rising in popularity. And what is equally distressing is the number of women getting addicted to online gambling.

An increasing number of women are getting addicted to online gambling.

A recent study by British charity GambleAware which focuses on keeping people safe from gambling harms, states that up to a million women in Britain are in danger of gambling harms. It also says that online casino and bingo sites which are popular with women, record the highest traffic in winter months. Also, GamCare, an independent British charity that supports people with gambling-related problems, recorded the highest number of women seeking help to overcome their gambling addictions, during the pandemic lockdowns.

Besides, it is the convenience of mobile phone gambling that is compelling more and more women to gamble, as they can engage in it without having to enter male-dominated bookmakers’ establishments. Therefore, about 7 in 10 female gamblers in the U.K. are into online gambling. 

Psychotherapist Liz Karter, with expertise in gambling addiction for women, said, “Women are more likely to become addicted to gambling because it feels calming. What hooks a woman tends not to be excitement, but just being lost in something, whereas men are more likely to be looking for that thrill.”

Moreover, for women, gambling provides a form of escapism. As Karter explains, “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. They can block out the problems at home and work, and it’s like a protective shield against anxious thoughts and feelings.”

Meanwhile, Marina Smith, manager of GamCare’s women’s program says, gambling is seen as a compulsive habit that generally affects men. With women it is a “hidden addiction.”

As Ian Semel, CEO of Breakeven, a free counseling service for gambling addicts in the UK, perceives this, gambling is a serious stigma for women because “society has very clear gender roles for women and expectations that they’ll be the caregivers.” He believes that breaking these rules could bring “judgment, exposure, shame and guilt” on the women. Therefore, not every female problem-gambler will reach out for help, keeping the true numbers of affected women, hidden from view. In the same vein, gambling therapy charity, Gordon Moody estimates that only 3% of female problem-gamblers seek help.

Earlier, GambleAware commissioned a first-of-its-kind research study on quantitative data on women gamblers, where the problems of female gamblers were examined and reported on, in depth. The report found that these women were more likely to be from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, were likely an “affected other” and they all cited social stigma as the biggest obstacle to treatment. And, during the pandemic, a 4% rise  was observed in the number of female problem-gamblers who called for help to addiction helplines in the U.K.

Organizations that have observed the dangerous trend of female addiction to gambling, are trying to help stave off disastrous consequences. Gamstop, a free British app that can block gambling apps and websites from mobile phones, counts over 50,000 women signing up for its service. In March 2020, women comprised 26% of all Gamstop users, and in September the number had gone up to 31%.

Gamblers Anonymous and GamCare are also supportive of female gambling addicts. Nevertheless, psychotherapist Pamela Roberts from Priory’s Woking Hospital in Surrey, cautions that the first step is to ensure no one views a gambling addiction as shameful or brushes it off. “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.”

Meanwhile, following a pilot project early in 2021, Gordon Moody intended opening, in the Midlands, in January 2022, the world’s first residential treatment center especially for women gambling addicts. The center will provide a uniquely secure environment for women with gambling problems, and relevant treatment for addiction for around 120 women, every year. It will be an inclusive establishment where women from any background can seek treatment within a program that clearly understands the broader issues hanging over female addiction to gambling.

Moreover, as Gordon Moody CEO Matthew Hickey said, “Gambling is the hidden addiction and hidden further again within that is the story of women gamblers and women who are ‘affected others.’” He voiced the urgent need to change this, adding that  the impact of Covid means this is a growing crisis that needs to be tackled with more expertise and resources.

And the story that every addict knows well is that addiction begins with the hope that something “out there” can instantly fill up the emptiness inside.

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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