The potentially deadly consequences of gambling addiction - how people get trapped in a cycle

The problems of gambling addiction may not be as obvious as alcohol and drug addiction, but they are just as dangerous.

Nathan Barnes was an amazing gambler who somehow always managed to outsmart the system and make a profit. Or, at least, that is what his friends thought.

The truth was that Mr Barnes was in big trouble, buried under credit card debt and payday loans, spending rent money on online betting and unable to keep his head above the water.

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He said: “I always bragged when I won, I suppose I liked that attention and the dopamine hit.

“It had got to the point when everything revolved around trying to make money through gambling.

“But I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want to show I was weak.”

The 28-year-old thinks he lost upwards of £25,000 to his gambling addiction, which came to a head in April 2018.

He was working at a gym and one of his clients told him about their terminal cancer diagnosis.

“I literally looked at my life and thought, ‘What am I doing?’,” he said.

“I just burst into tears. It really hit home how much damage I’d done. The first thing I did was tell my mum I was in thousands of pounds worth of debt.

“I’d lost everything and ended up sleeping on a floor.

“My mental health was in the toilet, I wasn’t taking care of myself.

“I’d been wearing dirty trainers. No wonder I was single,” he laughed.

Two years and a half years on, things could not be more different. In fact, one of the first things Mr Barnes noticed during his recovery was how alien it felt to buy things for himself again.

He now has a good job working for the NHS in Leeds, a partner and a home, and he feels “incredible”.

“My life has done a 180 degree turn. I feel so lucky and so grateful.”

He now volunteers as an ambassador for the Northern Gambling Service helping others come out of the other side of a gambling problem.

“Recovery is possible. If I can get out of it, you can get out of it,” he said.

The Northern Gambling Service runs a specialist clinic in Leeds, which was the first NHS clinic in the north providing support for gambling addiction.

It has been open just over a year, and has been followed by offshoot clinics in Manchester and Sunderland, and has so far put 500 people on the road to recovery.

One of those people is Jonathan, who had gone from a £2 bet in the pub on a Saturday with his mates to two attempted suicides, lost jobs and stealing from his family and friends.

At the age of 21, he discovered fixed odds betting terminals - gambling machines in betting shops and casinos.

He said: “The first three or four years I could still walk away after losing £100 in one go. But by the time I was 25 I was in so very deep.

“As soon as I got paid, my entire wage went into the roulette machine. Most of the time that meant I had a whole month with no money, but I still found the resources to buy alcohol and cocaine which had become a regular thing with me during that time.

“How did I find the resources? I stole from my family, friends and my girlfriend.”

The occasional win spurred him into a party lifestyle and the cycle continued until he was 31.

“Under pressure from my girlfriend, I went to a couple of Gamblers Anonymous meetings but it just wasn’t for me – I couldn’t empathise with the other members and felt their experiences were trivial compared to mine.

“After two suicide attempts, my girlfriend insisted I went back to Gamblers Anonymous – or something, anything else.”

He applied for the Leeds clinic and met others who were in a similar boat.

“Never mind an open mind, after that first session I went feet first into the programme

“The result has been absolutely crazy. My relationships are now fantastic, helped no doubt that I am not stealing from them…” he laughed.

He has money in the bank and is a reliable employee.

“I don’t have to worry about buying a pack of sweets anymore as I know the card won’t be declined.”

Matthew Gaskell, consultant psychologist and clinical lead of the Northern Gambling Service said, despite the challenges of lockdown, which meant the clinic needed to switch to online sessions, the early data from the clinic has been “fantastic”.

More than 20 per cent of the participants are women and he said people “come from all walks of life and all ages”.

The clinic uses a combination of different therapies to treat people.

He said: “It’s not a one size fits all approach. Some people find it beneficial to listen to others’ experience, so there’s group work. We really believe in that. And there’s access to people with lived experience, as not everyone wants to see a psychologist.”

The clinic also offers to help for family members of gambling addicts.

He said: “If someone in your family or a partner is affected, it can cause enormous stress and strain. Even if the gambler isn’t getting help, it’s available for their loved ones.

“We are picking people up who are completely and utterly on their knees and getting them back on their feet.”

As one of those people, Jonathan urged anyone who is in the position he was a year ago to seek help from the clinic.

He said: “Gambling is a solitary addiction. People can usually spot a drug or alcohol dependent sufferer, but it is hard for family and friends to see the signs of harmful gambling.

“People need help, but more importantly they need to know themselves they need help. I finally accepted that, and I hope others can at least try the Northern Gambling Service. It changed my life.”