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Women in gambling: the hidden addiction

Many of us believe 'having a little flutter' now and again is a harmless form of fun. But worrying statistics from the gambling charity GambleAware show that up to 1 million women in the UK are at risk from gambling harm. All too often, gambling leads to stress, anxiety and a compulsion to keep going, hoping to make back what you've lost. Women are more likely to feel judged if they admit to gambling, so often struggle in silence.

What constitutes gambling addiction?

As a GP, I spend large amounts of my time helping people with addictions. Although there is a lot of stigma surrounding problem drinking and drug misuse, at least there's fairly widespread public awareness of these conditions. Most people are well aware that both of these can lead to serious physical complications and can even be deadly.

But by definition, addiction is a mental health problem. Doctors define addiction as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. It's actually possible to be addicted to almost anything - shopping, online gaming, prescription painkillers, the internet, sex or work. The key feature of an addiction is that you know it's harming you, you may want to stop but you just can't resist it.

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Do I need to worry about gambling?

If you place the occasional bet but never spend more than you can afford, or feel guilty or worried about your gambling, it's unlikely that you need help.

Unfortunately, many people start off gambling in this way, only to find their gambling spiralling out of control. They may become addicted to the buzz of gambling; they may drift into spending more and more time and money gambling; they may end up having 'just one more bet' to try to cover their losses.

Over time, problem gamblers spend much more than they can afford. They end up in debt and try to recover the money they've lost with more betting - leading to a vicious cycle of bigger and bigger debts. They feel ashamed, often trying to hide their gambling problem until in some cases, they bankrupt themselves.

Spotting the warning signs

A campaign this year, launched by GambleAware, highlights the critical early warning signs that suggest you could be at risk from gambling-related harm, especially if you're a woman. Ask yourself if you are:

  • Losing track of time.
  • Spending more than you can afford.
  • Keeping your gambling secret from those around you.

If the answer to one or more of these questions is 'yes', you may well need help.

How many women have a gambling problem?

Around 6 million women aged over 16 in the UK have gambled online in the last month, with figures up more than 50% in the last four years. Rates of online gambling surged during the pandemic, and rates among women are rising twice as fast as they are among men.

Research from YouGov suggests half a million women in the UK are experiencing gambling harm, and 1.1 million are at moderate risk of harm from gambling. The issue started to become more marked before the pandemic: in fact, the number of women seeking gambling treatments from the National Gambling Treatment Service has more than doubled compared to five years ago.

Women who have gambling problems are often younger - typically aged 18-34 - and more likely to come from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

Gambling doesn't just affect the person with a problem, either. It's thought that 4.5 million people in the UK have their lives negatively affected by someone else's gambling. Women are more likely than men to suffer the consequences of someone else's gambling.

Why do men and women gamble?

Classically, men gamble for the buzz and the excitement it brings. The anticipation of waiting to see if you've won gives a rush of adrenaline - the 'fight or flight' hormone produced whether we're excited or scared. A big win gives an amazing high, and from then on, they're constantly seeking that feeling.

For women, the motivation to gamble is often very different. They tend to be using gambling as a way to escape the worries in their lives. While they're gambling, their focus is entirely on that. Women are much more likely to choose simple, easy-to-play betting games, such as slots - slot machines, fruit machines - and sometimes bingo.

Increasingly, internet gambling companies are offering online slot machine games. This sort of gambling allows women to escape situations they feel trapped in, both mentally and emotionally. While they're playing, they become lost in the game. The reason they choose these simple games is that they're repetitive - they block out negative thoughts so have a calming effect.

Most adults in the UK now have mobile phones with internet access, so the temptation is constantly in their pockets. Advertising deliberately downplays the risks and tries to make gambling seem fun and harmless - free offers when you first join a gambling site, the ability to make small bets of pennies that almost anyone can afford.

What can I do if I have a gambling problem?

Online gambling is huge business - and companies are targeting their advertising heavily at women. As well as online advertising, companies often concentrate their TV adverts at programmes watched largely by women. Anyone can become addicted - sadly, those who can least afford it are most likely to be affected. And women are more likely than men to experience anxiety, depression and guilt as a result of their gambling.

If you're concerned, there is free, confidential advice and support available from BeGambleAware - you only have to ask. They also have helpful tips on how to approach the issue if you're worried about a loved one.

With thanks to My Weekly where this feature was originally published.

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