AS A young boy in Port Macquarie, Fred* would steal milk money from the purse of his year 4 teacher to feed the pinball machine in the nearby corner store. Over the next four decades, through two relationships, across two states and even while in jail, his compulsive gambling spiralled into betting on horses, greyhounds, football, in casinos and eventually poker machines, with Fred resorting to breaking into homes and offices to steal items to pawn for cash.
On some nights, after losing all of his money, he would vomit until there was nothing left in his stomach.
‘‘I was that bad a gambler, even when I didn’t have the money to gamble I’d still be sitting in a TAB dry punting, picking a horse in a race or a dog in a race and pretending you’ve got money on it, sitting there until the TAB closed,’’ he told H2 Review.
Australians lose more money gambling than any other citizens in the world – about $19billion each year, with $12billion poured into almost 200,000 poker machines. The Herald reported this month that 31per cent of Australians living in regional or rural areas played the pokies in the past year, compared with 22per cent of capital city dwellers.
While pokie revenue has stagnated in the Hunter over the past two years at $276million a year – compared to growing at 3.2per cent across the state – it remains a hefty figure. Betting is ingrained in Australian culture, with the Melbourne Cup one of the most popular spectator events in the country and the tradition of two-up an enduring touchstone of Anzac Day.
‘‘It’s part of our culture in our entertainment, tourism, leisure, sport, it’s everywhere, absolutely everywhere,’’ Lambton psychologist Stuart Edser said.
‘‘The availability and access to gambling venues is now so localised because it’s in every pub and every club on every street corner. So there’s a kind of geographical factor in this as well that is around these days that wasn’t around 50 years ago.’’
About 80per cent of the population gambles in some form during the year and 15per cent gamble regularly.
The federal government said beyond those who bet responsibly and for recreation, up to 500,000 were at risk of becoming or already were problem gamblers. Defined as people whose gambling behaviour disrupts their life, problem gamblers lose around $21,000 each year, around one third of the average salary.
It is estimated the actions of one problem gambler negatively affects the lives of between five and 10 other people – meaning there are potentially 5million people affected by the 500,000 who are at risk of becoming or already are problem gamblers.
Problem gamblers, for example, are six times more likely to be divorced than non problem gamblers, and children with parents who are problem gamblers are up to 10 times more likely to become problem gamblers themselves than children with non gambling parents. The government has calculated the social cost of problem gambling to the community to be at least $4.7billion a year.
While the spotlight has been firmly fixed on Canberra-centric politicking about plans for mandatory pre-commitment technology for poker machines, which requires punters to set betting limits before they play, those who will be most affected and possibly protected by any future reforms are those at the coalface.
Every day across the country psychologists and counsellors in private practice, government-funded bodies and charitable organisations provide support to gamblers and help them navigate lives punctuated by financial loss and feelings of helplessness, shame and regret. Their stories remain largely untold, with the government saying only 15 per cent of problem gamblers seek help, while the majority stay silent.
FRED, now in his early 50s, had grown up in a stable home with two parents.
‘‘I was no different to anyone else but I had to do things to extremes, I had to be the best footballer in town, I had to be the best fighter in town, I had to be the best surfer in town, so I pushed myself all the time,’’ he said. ‘‘It was a buzz for me, an adrenalin rush.’’
While still at high school he played cricket with and received tips from a strapper for legendary trainer T. J. Smith.
‘‘Three weeks in a row I got winners and that was it, I was onto the horses,’’ he said. ‘‘You come up with a lot of systems in desperation and every bet I put on, I was going to win,’’ he added. ‘‘It didn’t matter if it was 200 to one.’’
Of all the types of gambling he would try, it was on the horses he spent most of his money.
He remembers placing $100 on every race during Wednesday and Saturday racing and at one point punting $1000 in an attempt to win back his losses.
‘‘A compulsive gambler thinks the more money you’ve got the more you’re going to win,’’ he said. ‘‘But a compulsive gambler will still go in there with his last dollar that he’s just found outside and think he’s going to win a million.’’
It wasn’t long before Fred met his second love, poker machines. He had often put $10 or $20 in the pokies after placing his bets on horses and waiting for the first race to start. But one day he found a golf-themed machine that he’d never played before.
‘‘I just kept getting these features and that was it,’’ he said. ‘‘From there on in every cent I got would go into the pokies and I very rarely bet on a horse – no other kind of gambling either.’’
Gambling was the only constant through years of frequent relocation, odd jobs, empty pockets, homelessness and a stint in jail for stealing cash. Fred ended up in The Salvation Army’s William Booth House in Surry Hills and was encouraged to join the rehabilitation program for his gambling and alcohol addictions.
It wasn’t the first time he was offered help. He had attended Gamblers Anonymous meetings 20 years earlier, his interest piqued only by free coffee and biscuits, and from then infrequently as he moved around NSW and Queensland. While it did stop him gambling for about six months at a time, his lack of engagement with the steps to recovery meant he would always relapse.
Fred’s story of suffering, sacrifice and sadness – which in turn affected his family and loved ones – is not rare. Experts say there are a number of different factors that contribute to why some people move from recreational gambling towards being problem gamblers.
In turn, gambling can often exacerbate the contributing factors.
‘‘People don’t make a decision one day ‘Oh I’m going to waste all my life savings at the poker machines’, they normally have lots of other stuff going on,’’ Mission Australia gambling counsellor Gerard Devine said. ‘‘What we normally see is that gambling is a secondary issue to depression or anxiety or loneliness or lack of social connections and all those sorts of things, so it can be a pretty broad spectrum of issues we’re dealing with.’’
WHILE gambling does not discriminate between age, gender or profession, Devine said there were several groups identified as being at risk of having or developing gambling problems, including people with drug and alcohol problems, people with depression or anxiety, unmarried males under 30, women in their 40s and 50s living in poorer suburbs and people of lower socio economic status– those with the least to lose.
Edser, who has been specialising in gambling for the past six years, said there was also no typical personality profile, but common traits have been identified as impulsivity, sensation seeking and being prone to risk taking. Gamblers usually fall into a few different models, including those who bet for excitement and an adrenalin rush.
‘‘Once people have that as part of their life it’s quite exciting for them ... Usually it starts with a big win very early on,’’ Devine said. ‘‘If people are feeling a bit sad about their lives it is quite an exciting way to escape those troubles and find an outlet that gives them a bit of excitement and even a momentary boost in their mood.’’
Others gamble due to a compulsive addiction, which plays out as an impulse control disorder. For many it’s about relief or escape from negative emotional states, although any respite is only ever temporary.
‘‘This is a cluster of people who tend to have various mood disorders or emotional disturbances, poor coping skills, painful emotional experiences, isolation, low self-esteem, low self-worth,’’ Edser said.
Operations manager overseeing Wesley Mission’s free Gambling Counselling Services Jeff Lucas said these painful emotional experiences can often be related to poor role modelling from their elders, environmental factors including living in a high-stress family system or a lack of food or shelter. In other cases it is traumas from earlier life, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abandonment and physical abandonment.
‘‘Right through to parents having breakdowns in their marriage to parents not being emotionally available for their children, that’s a big one,’’ Lucas said.
Devine said there was a portion who started as lonely people trying to make friends. ‘‘They may try to meet people and go along to a club to put money in and just hang out there. They may not make a connection but they still have a place where they can go and be in a social environment,’’ he said. ‘‘It can be very easy for someone just seeking a social outlet to become someone with no friends sitting down at a poker machine for hours at a time.’’
Lucas said there had also been an increase in the number of young people who started gambling as a form of risk-taking behaviour, supposedly safe in the knowledge their parents would pay for their rent and food.
Edser said for this group, betting when socialising could easily become an unavoidable part of their lifestyle and therefore made them more likely to become problem gamblers than their older counterparts. Usually the first sign that someone is becoming a problem gambler is when they start chasing their losses.
‘‘The cycle of gambling is someone gambles, they have a win, or more likely a loss, they then start chasing their losses, then there’s the shame and remorse of losing everything and then the desire to gamble again to try and get back those losses,’’ Lucas said.
THE stakes, however, are always high. While addiction to alcohol and drugs often has physical effects on the person, Lucas said gambling addiction was often a secret illness.
‘‘It’s only when the sheriff is knocking on the door that usually there is a major crisis that they get found out and have to do something about it,’’ he said.
Lucas said it was common to see gamblers resorting to crime to keep their head above the surface. He has seen clients with up to 15 credit cards, trying to pay one off with the others, or making sure they’re the first one to open the household’s mail so they can remedy any outstanding bills. Some spend every dollar available to them.
‘‘A problem gambler if they are embezzling from their place of work they won’t go on holidays, they may take their pay in lieu instead of holidays because they want the money,’’ Lucas said.
He met a 60-year-old grandmother who embezzled $600,000 from her workplace to spend on the pokies, along with $150,000 in inheritance and ownership of two properties.
Gamblers will also change the way they treat their family and friends, lying to hide their problem. At Wesley Mission about 20per cent of the calls to their helpline are from those who want to help their gambling relative or friend. Lucas said a family member or friend ccouldn’t make an appointment for a gambler to attend counselling, but they could book in for counselling themselves.
‘‘A lot of family members enable the situation and don’t know they’re doing it,’’ he said. ‘‘They cover up for them when the boss rings, they’re trying to make excuses why they can’t go somewhere or why they haven’t got enough money to go anywhere.
‘‘It’s quite embarrassing for the family member, with that comes a loss of trust and feeling cheated or lied to, there’s a lot of lying that goes on. These people aren’t bad people but they do bad things when caught up in gambling addiction.
‘‘Family members feel let down and disadvantaged because the money spent on gambling could have been spent on food, rent, mortgage, family clothes, outings, anything. Everything comes second to the gambling addiction.’’
Lucas said in some cases a family member or friend felt they could have done something to stop the problem and so took on the ramifications themselves, ‘‘which is quite emotionally crippling in itself’’.
Edser said most clients came to him by their own choice after a crisis, fight or confrontation. At this point, clients have usually tried unsuccessfully for some time to reduce or stop their gambling and have realised they need serious help.
‘‘They’ll come in at this point, which in a sense is a good point because they’ve got insight, they’re not in denial as it were, they have insight that ‘this is impairing my life, the way I function’,’’ Edser said. ‘‘When you’ve got somebody sitting in front of you like that generally they’re ready to change.’’
Edser uses evidence-based practice and combines a number of different treatment to help his clients. He speaks to them about being conditioned for reinforcement and reward– along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs.
‘‘If you don’t get a reward every single time but only sometimes, that perpetuates the actual behaviour,’’ he said.
He also explores cognitive models, thought processes, errors in judgment and false beliefs around mathematical probability and chance events. Edser said clients often had gamblers fallacy (believing they are due for a win following a number of losses) and cognitive regret (when they leave a table or machine and stop and experience regret that they’re going to miss out on the next win).
He also uses clinical hypnosis and tries to educate his clients to understand their own behaviour, for example by providing literature on where poker machines are located in a club and why.
In the first appointment with Wesley Mission the counsellor will assess the client and set up some goals together, as well as individualised strategies to reach those goals. If, for example, a client wants to stop gambling, they can reduce their access to money by ensuring rent is paid directly from their bank account, withdrawal limits are imposed and a family member or friend holds all the credit cards. They can also employ cognitive behavioural techniques and narrative techniques.
‘‘With counselling it’s all about the person, I’m here for you to support you,’’ Lucas said.
‘‘You’ve got the foot on the accelerator, you can go as fast or as slow as you like, no one is there to pressure you into anything.
‘‘I do believe that every client that comes to us has the answers to their own problems, they’re just not seeing them clearly and that’s what we do, help with that.’’
There is a benchmark of 12 sessions, but this number can increase if the client and counsellor agree that additional sessions would be beneficial. Counsellors can also refer clients to financial counselling or Wesley Community Legal Service and help clients ban themselves from clubs and hotels using a self exclusion service. The clients have their photo displayed in the premises staffroom and if they are seen at the club, they are asked to leave.
Mission Australia has a similar free service, with the number and frequency of sessions negotiated with each client. Devine said the counsellor discussed behaviour strategies that could act as protective measures and then also explored some of the underlying reasons why they gambled.
They also discuss alternatives to gambling including exercise and social activities as well as changing thought patterns.
‘‘It can involve learning to deal with life’s stresses a little bit better and being able to ride out particular urges, some mindfulness approaches work quite well there, where people are able to experience urges and not react to them,’’ Devine said.
Edser said he believed gambling needed to be included in public health policy.
‘‘It can’t just be left at counselling level,’’ he said. ‘‘Yes there is such a thing as responsible gambling and some people can manage that quite well, but there are others who can’t for one reason or another so we sometimes need to protect people from themselves.’’
Devine agreed and said while there was community awareness around suicide prevention and initiatives including RU OK? Day, there also needed to be similar understanding built around gambling.
‘‘No one ever asks people about gambling,’’ he said. ‘‘People might identify with their family and friends that they have financial issues or trouble paying bills but no one will ever say ‘have you ever had an issue with gambling’ and it can be as simple as just asking that question.’’
FRED completed the first three of the 12-step rehabilitation program in Sydney and moved to Newcastle to complete the second stage of the 12-month program.
‘‘I sort of had an awakening and thought what I want out of life is life, I need a life with quality in it and I’m not going to get that the way I’m going, so I’m going to have to change things from what I’ve done before,’’ he said.
He hasn’t gambled or had alcohol for 9years. He rejoined the Gamblers Anonymous fellowship and said his continued attendance was vital to ensure he didn’t relapse. At meetings participants are invited to speak about gambling, share their story, what has happened during the week and move through the 12 steps to recovery, usually at one step per month.
The first step is admitting being powerless over gambling and that life had become unmanageable. The second is believing a greater power can restore a normal way of thinking and living. They also read literature associated with each step and have discussions based on questions.
The key is to take things one step at a time.
Fred said fighting gambling alongside other people in the same situation gave him strength. He’s now supporting other people fighting addictions and said getting off the roller-coaster of emotions and assuming a more normal life gave him a rush more authentic than any gambling high.
‘‘It’s a spiritual adrenalin rush, the other one was a Satanic rush,’’ he said. ‘‘You’re a winner. It makes you feel good. I’ve had a lot of things go wrong but when you get through them without even thinking about gambling ... that’s an adrenalin rush.’’
* Names have been changed.
-Gambling Help Line: 1800858858. (24hours)
-Gamblers Anonymous host meetings in the Hunter every day of the week gansw.org.au or 9564 1574 (24 hours)
-Hunter Gambling Counselling Service; Mission Australia 40334927
-Wesley Mission Gambling Counselling Services Newcastle 49639200