Supercasinos: When a sure bet is despair

Amid all the hype surrounding the supercasino, one counselling charity reveals the plight of gamblers who play Russian roulette with their finances

"I have a really bad gambling problem," says the anxious caller, who sounds no older than 25. "I just got my wages this morning but lost it all on the computer in a matter of hours. I started with small bets but then I was losing, so I upped the stakes. I have some tablets here and don't know whether to take them."

Minutes later, the phone goes again. This time it is a distressed mother ringing with concerns about her 40-year-old son.

"He's a compulsive gambler but won't accept he's got a problem," she says. "He has a daughter of three and another one on the way and yet he's blowing £2,000 a month on online gambling. His partner doesn't know the half of it - and it's me who's bailing him out by paying his mortgage."

This kind of call is a very familiar one to the counsellors who work on the helplines at GamCare, the national charity for problem gamblers.

While many of us like to have a flutter from time to time, and can enjoy it without becoming addicted, a growing number suffer through dependency and loss of control. For these people, gambling takes over their lives and dominates their thoughts. They cannot stop until they have run out of money - even if this means losing relationships, friends, possessions and jobs along the way.

GamCare figures suggest there are around 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK, but that number is based on statistics from 1999 and is widely believed to have grown, especially in the wake of the explosion in gambling websites, open for business 24 hours a day.

And now there are fears that last week's unveiling of Manchester as the site of Britain's first supercasino will further inflame these figures.

Some of the individuals who call the charity's helpline have debts running into five or six figures. Others are bankrupt and, at worse, have attempted suicide because they see no way back.

GamCare works to promote responsible attitudes towards gambling, and address the needs of those affected by dependency.

The helpline is at the hub of GamCare's support and care services and is often the first point of contact. It is confidential and available 24 hours a day, although calls will go through to an answering service between midnight and 8am.

The helpline is staffed by highly experienced counsellors such as Kate - not her real name - whose role it is to encourage the caller to talk openly about his or her concerns.

"When someone calls the helpline it can be quite emotional, as it may have taken them weeks to pluck up the courage to do so," she says. "It's important we give the caller the opportunity to talk; you have to encourage people by telling them they have taken the first step."

During the initial call, the counsellor will suggest a range of options. Individuals can choose to receive free information, advice, support or counselling through the charity's national help-line, or they can opt for face-to-face counselling on a one-to-one basis, or through a weekly group session.

The aim is to help stop problem gambling, or at least help people gamble less, and to devise coping strategies. There is an emphasis on developing emotional and practical skills to prevent relapses.

Dealing with gambling is about breaking the dependency and looking at the underlying causes, says Adrian Scarfe, head of clinical services at GamCare.

"We look at the triggers and what got people into gambling in the first place," he explains. "Like other addictions, clients might be using it as an escape or for the adrenalin rush - the idea of chancing everything and chasing that high. Gambling is also competitive: gamblers know the casino has the house edge, but they still want to beat the system."

The duration of counselling can vary from six weeks to a year or more. "Some people start off by saying they want to stop completely, but others are reluctant to let go," adds Mr Scarfe. "People use gambling as a way of coping. If you take away the gambling, you take away the coping mechanism. It takes huge courage to let go."

Further to all this, GamCare offers support for dependants and family members, who can call the help-line or attend counselling themselves.

GamCare started in 1997 as a campaigning charity - working to raise awareness of problem gambling - and has developed to provide treatment, prevention and education. Alongside its phone line and face-to-face counselling services, it has an internet forum and chatroom. Launched in August 2005, this gives people the chance to ask questions and share advice. There are now plans to launch an online one-to-one counselling service later this year.

All this, of course, requires money. Mr Scarfe admits the charity's funding has been "up and down", but says there is now more stability as GamCare applies for its funding from the Responsibility in Gambling Trust (RIGT), an organisation that collects money from the gaming industry to pay for research, education and treatment of problem gamblers.

GamCare maintains a dialogue with all those involved in the gambling sector, including regulators and the Government. "We achieve more by working with the industry," says Teresa Tunstall, the charity's head of development and training.

This will be especially important when the 2005 Gambling Act comes into force in September, making "social responsibility" a condition of gaining a licence for all forms of regulated gambling in the UK.

GamCare is firm in its belief that gambling should not be prohibited - provided it is legal and operated responsibly - as otherwise it will go underground.

"We share the widely held view that it has become a mainstream leisure activity," says Ms Tunstall.

However, GamCare is working to train staff in the industry in how to spot potential problems and deal with them. "If operators know the signs, they can react by offering help and support," she adds. Posters and leaflets for the charity can already be found in casinos, betting offices and other gambling premises, and from September this will become compulsory.

Since its care services were launched in 1997, GamCare has witnessed some major changes - including the rise of new technology and remote gambling, giving people the chance to bet 24 hours a day in an environment where it is easy to lose track of time - and the value of money.

It has also seen a change in the risk profile, with more women now gambling.

"In the past, women have tended to play fruit machines or bingo," says Mr Scarfe. "Women tend to be escape gamblers rather than competitive gamblers. But online gambling is growing increasingly popular as women can gamble from the safety of their own homes - in an environment that is hypnotic and calm."

GamCare now runs a group counselling programme specifically for women but says they remain under-represented.

"There is still this notion of shame attached to women gamblers. They feel they are judged, so don't face up to it and seek help."

Against the odds...

GamCare logged 22,600 calls in 2005 - up 3.7 per cent from 2004.

The charity reports only a slight increase in the percentage of female problem gamblers - up from 11 to 13 per cent in 2005.

At 35.5 per cent of the total activities reported, placing bets was the dominant form of gambling in 2005; this means gambling on the outcome of mainly sporting events, be it in a high-street bookmakers or via websites such as BetFair. The next most popular activities were fruit machines (25.8 per cent) and the "fixed odds" betting terminals found in pubs and clubs that let you play roulette and the like (21.4 per cent).

Some 55 per cent of GamCare's clients have stopped gambling after counselling, and a further 21 per cent have been able to manage their gambling effectively.

For more information go to www.gamcare.org.uk; you can call the helpline on 0845 600 0133

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