Every couple of months I write a blog about life following my recovery from a gambling addiction, and my journey to establish YGAM (Young Gamblers Education Trust); a UK-Registered Charity with the single aim to help young people make smart choices around gambling.
Like drinking alcohol, the majority of the population gamble without harm. However, like drinking alcohol, gambling comes with inherent risks and for some people they develop a dependency on the activity. This dependency is termed a behavioural addiction. I developed such an addiction and it got to a stage whereby I could not function unless I had a bet every day. My choice of product was B1 fruit machines, which then had a maximum stake of £2.00 and maximum jackpot of £4,000. Now I believe the maximum stake is £5.00 with a jackpot of £10,000 (or £20,000 on progressive jackpot linked machines). My stakes varied from 50p - £2.00, with an average stake being £1.00.
I went to great lengths to satisfy my addiction and the ‘need’ to bet, finding I could not stop, despite knowing my actions were destroying my life. I ended up spending all my savings, I took on unsecured debt and when my access to money ran out, I lied and stole money; so strong was the urge to ‘stay in the game’.
I won the jackpot quite a few times (the amount of which varied depending on my stake size from £1,000 - £4,000), understandable I guess as I was in a casino most days. After winning did I feel happy and bank the winnings? Well no, any feelings of satisfaction were short lived as I would spend the entire winnings on gambling over the following days until I had nothing. I would then be back at square one, desperately trying to find a way to access money by selling what few possessions I had left. It was a desperate circle of absolute self-destruction and despair.
What I have learnt over the past few months establishing YGAM, is that some gambling addicts describe their addiction or dependency as akin to having a ‘disease’, and some find a new codependency in the form of Gamblers Anonymous meetings to control their ‘disease’. Others firmly put the reason for their addiction to a particular product and focus their recovery and energy by blaming the availability of certain gambling products. Others say they have a behavioural addiction; these people tend to look at themselves first and foremost and try to understand and rationalise what has happened to allow themselves to become addicted. Honest self-reflection for many people may be difficult, the very idea that it may be our actions or lifestyle that contributed to the addiction taking hold can be difficult to accept. If something goes wrong in our life, our natural instinct is to blame somebody or something. Finally, and most upsetting for me, some addicts self-harm or consider (and some actually succeed) in taking their own life because of the situation they find themselves in. This happened to me and it wasn't about the gambling that put me in a very dark place; it was because of the lengths I went to feed my addiction and the person I had become. Shame and isolation are two words strongly associated with gambling and other behavioural addictions.
These are all consequences of the addiction and so, if like me you want to set up an organisation to safeguard young people and give them information so young people in particular can make informed choices around gambling (just as the way we teach young people about safe sex or responsible drinking) you are bound to draw attention. You will draw even more attention if you engage with the gambling industry, as one of your stakeholders. Why is this? Well for many gambling addicts it is the gambling industry and their products which are to blame for their addiction.
When I set out to establish YGAM I spent a lot of time researching and talking to a range of people, from addicts themselves, to young people who described themselves ‘at risk’, teachers, youth workers, health professionals, parents (one of whose son committed suicide as a result of his gambling) and leaders from the gambling industry.
This has helped me to assemble views from a variety of people, which in turn has had a direct impact on how YGAM would be established, who our stakeholders should be and how our preventative education products would be complementary to current services in this space.
Early on it became apparent the most appropriate legal structure would be a Charitable Company, Limited by Guarantee (CCLG). In other words, a company registered with Companies House as a Limited by Guarantee (not for profit) business and also registered with the Charity Commission as a Registered Charity. For me registering with Companies House was fairly straight forward and took a couple of weeks; however, applying to become a Registered Charity is a far lengthier process of scrutiny and due-diligence. It takes on average six months to go through the process to become a Registered Charity. Last month we were awarded our Registered Charitable status, which as you can imagine was an important milestone in our development. There are five organisations registered as official UK charities that provide services to gambling addicts; GamCare, Gordon Moody, Responsible Gambling Trust, Christian Centre for Gambling Rehabilitation and Gambling Concern. YGAM will not deliver treatment, our charitable mission is based around preventative gambling harm awareness education and so distinctly different to the other charities registered.
Compared with other substance or behavioural addiction services, there are not many former gambling addicts coming forward to provide meaningful or impact services. There are, however, by contrast a number of addicts turned campaigners, who are fighting the gambling industry. While the gambling industry do need to be held to account like any other sector, I was not keen to join the growing number of campaigners; this in my view is the job of the gambling regulator. Also I wanted to deliver a service to actually help people, as appose to shouting from the sidelines.
Having worked in the Third Sector for over 25 years I have been involved with or led amazing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects. Projects combining commercial business know-how and resources, with the social impact of charities, helping to create inspirational change. This change comes about in a variety of ways including employee volunteering, fundraising, mentoring and assistance with specific strategic development aspects of the charity. It is these potential gains for YGAM and recognising the efforts of the industry that I am engaging with the gambling sector as a key stakeholder. While I understand not everybody will agree with this approach my motivation is to prevent gambling related harm, something at least we all have agreement on.
Understanding gambling addictions is complex and warrants reflection and curiosity rather than bluster. I try to listen to all sides in order to form an independent judgement and to be able to recalibrate that view as I learn. I do think it is a shame that some participants in this debate have fixed views and closed minds and do not entertain the prospect of speaking to the gambling industry or alienate those who do speak to that industry. As a result, a huge amount of effort (and money) is expended without any real gain.