BLOG: Stigma is sticky but don’t let it block the road to recovery

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London, 1 November 2023: Sam Starsmore is Programme Lead: Education at Ygam, leading on the Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme. Sam is a member of GambleAware’s Lived Experience Council and has recently been named as a finalist at the National INSIGHT Awards. The awards celebrate examples of positive and outstanding practice achieved through lived experience. 

Today marks the start of Men’s Health Awareness Month. The campaign, more commonly known as Movember, looks at mental health through a male lens, focusing on prevention, early intervention, and health promotion. 

The 1st of November will forever be a poignant date in the calendar for me. It was the date that I placed my last bet in 2019. This moment will live long in my memory and is still, to this day, difficult to come to terms with. In the moment, and the days and weeks afterwards, I didn’t see a way out, I couldn’t see how to move forward. I have been in recovery from a gambling addiction since December 2016. After arresting my gambling for 2 years in 2017 and 2018, I suffered two relapses in 2019 that emotionally crippled me. I didn’t feel like I was ‘back at the start of my journey’ because I didn’t see a way in which my journey could continue. The evidence was clear: the addiction could take hold of me at any point, especially when vulnerable.  

Whenever I share my experiences, the hope is that it will resonate with someone who is experiencing the pain I once did. I don’t have a magic wand that can eliminate a gambling addiction, but I do believe I have forged a blueprint to a successful recovery where the addiction can be arrested, life can become more manageable, and self-worth is regained.  

Utilising the voice of lived experience is paramount to drive social change, however, this must be done in a careful and considered manner. As much as it can be insightful to read the story of someone who has lived through a gambling addiction, it’s important to highlight the path of recovery. I have lived experience of gambling harms, but I also have living experience of arresting the addiction on a daily basis.

There are clear parallels between gambling addiction and men’s mental health. I would suggest one of the most damaging shared facets is stigma. Stigma plays a significant role in hindering individuals to come forward and seek support. Someone in the midst of addiction will be suffering adverse mental health problems while also battling with feelings of guilt and shame. They don’t believe society will accept them due to their actions. Gambling is a normalised activity in the UK and has been integrated into many social environments. Since the evolution of online gambling in 2005, this has been magnified by the bombardment of advertising and the rise of addictive products.  

NHS data tells us that men are less likely to seek help for their mental health. Only 36% of all NHS referrals for psychological therapies are for men[1]. 52% of men would be concerned about taking time off work, whilst 46% would be embarrassed or ashamed to tell their employer[2]. 3 out of 4 deaths by suicide in the UK are males and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50 in the UK[3].

Stigma is sticky; it doesn’t leave and can latch onto others. My wife and parents were stigmatised due to their affiliation with me, and they experienced the guilt and shame just as I did. This is something that should be considered when providing treatment and support for affected others. Stigma is also present not only in active addiction, but also in recovery. I don’t want to be identified as ‘Sam the compulsive gambler’, but that is the role that stigma assigns to me. Because I work in the harm prevention sector, because I raise awareness, and because I talk about my experiences, this stigma is attached to me in my recovery. 

It’s immensely difficult to come forward and disclose that you are struggling. Add to that the complexities of financial ruin, a secret life you have been living and ideations of suicide or self-harm – these are all experiences of someone who finds themselves in the palm of a gambling addiction. It is human nature to empathise, care and want to help another person, which is exactly what I received almost 7 years ago. Yes, there may be stern words and consequences, but the quicker you can communicate, the quicker you can get your life back to where it should be. I booked an appointment with my GP; I attended Gamblers Anonymous twice a week; I enrolled into counselling sessions; I attended online peer support groups and I worked with a sponsor on the 12 steps of recovery. For years, the fear of my secret world being revealed was excruciating, but I can now look back and pinpoint it as the turning point in my life. 

Fast forward to today, and although I’ve experienced two relapses, my outlook on life has drastically changed. No longer do I wake up needing to gamble. Instead, I have responsibilities and healthier priorities. I have not recovered, and I don’t believe I ever will. However, I am more aware of my triggers, unhealthy environments and the consequences to my actions and decisions. My life is incomparable to the one I once lived and for that I have many people to thank. 

Today I’ll be taking stock of my progress and reflecting on what has been another challenging, but worthwhile, 365 days. I’ll be taking the day off work to spend time with my daughter. I’m grateful this little girl will have a father who is present, both physically and emotionally. 

Anyone can contact Samaritans for free in confidence any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit, and the number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or email jo@samaritans.org or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch where you can talk to one of their trained volunteers face to face. 

For a comprehensive directory of support services, visit the Movember website here.

Join us in raising awareness for men’s health this Movember. Together, we can make a difference and spark meaningful conversations around these critical issues.

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