Hidden menace of problem gambling
In February 2018, at his lowest ebb, Andy Gray went for a walk in the woods, ready to take his own life.
"I was roaming around Cannock Chase with a noose in my pocket," recalls the 47-year-old father-of-two.
"I was walking around for four or five hours, I remember I was looking for a tree that was the right height, but couldn't find one. Maybe sub-consciously I didn't want to do it."
It was an addiction to gambling which drove Andy – not to be confused with the legendary Villa and Wolves striker – to the brink of suicide. Now he volunteers with several gambling charities, trying to discourage problem gambling.
His story is far from unique. In the 12 months to March 31, 2019, the National Gambling Treatment Service treated 10,000 people for addiction problems. This is projected to rise to 24,000 people a year by 2021. Its 24-hour helpline is handling about 30,000 calls and online chats every year. Yet research also suggests that less than two per cent of people with gambling problems actually seek treatment.
Gambling charity GambleAware has recently launched a major new advertising campaign which will run until the end of August, warning people about the dangers of gambling.
A spokeswoman for the charity says recent research has identified a high demand for treatment and support among people with gambling problems.
"The National Gambling Treatment Service works with, and alongside, the National Health Service to provide crucial help to those people who are at risk, or suffering from, gambling harm," she says.
"The service is easy to access and free at the point of delivery. It provides telephone, online and face-to-face treatment and support for individuals and groups across Great Britain. The main route for people accessing the treatment is via self-referrals through the 24/7 National Gambling Helpline, which is provided by a network of NHS trusts and voluntary sector organisations.”
The advertising campaign, which targets 25- to 54-year-olds – and the 25-34 age group in particular – focuses on the all-consuming nature of gambling with the inclusion of the line “when you’re there, but not there”. The powerful images highlight the way that people with gambling problems can feel disconnected from their family and friends, with the message that help is freely available.
Andy, who lives in Cannock, says gambling had been a way of life for as long as he could remember.
"From the age of seven or eight I would play the push-pennies in the arcades while on seaside holidays with my family, it was always a joke that I would come back with more money than I went out with," he says.
When he was older he started doing the pools, and in his teens he would become a regular at the betting shop. Then he opened an account with Ladbrokes, meaning he could place bets over the telephone.
But it was the rise of online gambling which really caused him problems.
"If you have an alcohol addiction or a drug addiction, people can smell the drink on your breath or notice the change in your behaviour," he says. "But if you've got a gambling addiction, you can go to the toilet, lose a thousand pounds, and no-one will know, unless they see you punching the wall on the way out."
Andy says as his addiction intensified, he would gamble his entire salary the moment he got paid, but as he won enough of it back to cover his living costs, he was able to conceal the problem.
The mask slipped five years ago, when he found he didn't have the money to pay the mortgage, and had to ask his partner's father for help. But even then, he managed to conceal the extent of his problem.
"I didn't really let on, I said I had overdone the gambling, but didn't explain the extent of the problem."
He is unsure precisely how much he was losing – or winning – at the height of his problem, but the figures were large.
"I would say my biggest win was between £2,500 and £5,000," he says.
"I never really kept a record of the money. If I started with £3,000, I might then get that up to £5,000, and then go back to zero. If I had a big win, it would just provide me with my stake money for the next bet."
Andy, who works in the commercial vehicle trade, says he would sometimes half-heartedly look online for help, without taking it any further.
"I would sometimes look on my phone at what Tony Adams did, with his treatment clinic, but then I would go and put another bet on," he says.
Andy says it was a combination of shame, regret and guilt which drove him to the brink of suicide. After deciding not to take his own life, he went to see his doctor straight away, who told him to return with his partner, and put him on a course of medication for depression. But even then, he couldn't bring himself to admit to a gambling problem – "I said it was stress, the pressure of work" – and he still continued to place bets.
"My last bet was March 30, 2018. The Monday after the Cheltenham Festival, the postman came, and I didn't get to the post first," he says.
"My partner opened the bank statements, and there were all these payments to betting companies. It finally brought it all out into the open, there could be no more lies."
Andy approached the Gamcare charity in London, who put him in touch with the Aquarius project in Wolverhampton, and he also joined Gamblers Anonymous. He now gives talks in prisons, including to inmates whose crimes have stemmed from gambling problems, and has teamed up with former England goalkeeper Neville Southall to offer regular question-and-answer sessions on Twitter.
Andy wants gambling addicts to know about the help that is available, but also feels more needs to be done to prevent problems in the first place. He says teenagers should be educated about the dangers of gambling in schools, and believes people such as himself have a crucial role in spreading this message.
"Saying that 'When the fun stops, stop' doesn't really cut it, but listening to people who have gone through it all in person, does," he says.
Andy wants to see bank accounts that forbid online gambling payments to be the default option in future, with people having to opt in if they wish to make betting payments. He says banks and bookmakers should also take greater responsibility for spotting gambling problems at an early stage.
Andy says being able to talk regularly with other people experiencing the same problems, coupled with the rewards of being able to help others, means he no longer feels any desire to return to his old habits. He feels a sense of liberation, no longer having the worries, secrets and deceptions that went with his addiction.
"I feel a sense that I have grown up at last," he says.
But Andy also acknowledges the fragility that goes with being a recovering addict of any kind.
"It would only take one bet to put me back to where I was before," he says.
*For more information about the National Gambling Treatment Service telephone 0808 802 0133 or see the website begambleaware.org/ngts
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