What's it like to tackle a gambling addiction? Two young New Zealanders, among hundreds who seek help each year, say problem gambling needs to be taken much more seriously.
“I was probably gambling at 17, 16 years old,” Shane*, 23, recalls, speaking over the phone from Christchurch. For a tall kid who could pass for an 18-year-old, it was easy enough to start gambling. His family didn't have a history of gambling but he lived near the races and had followed horses for years. “I was also into the Lotto as a young kid ... Loved scratchies.”
As a teenager, he kept a close eye on his money and saw gambling as an easy way to get more. After small wins with Lotto and Instant Kiwi, he started betting on horses. Later he got into heading to the casino with friends, playing roulette and blackjack. “It lured me in,” he says. “I just didn't know when to quit. I didn't know when to leave.”
The largest win he can remember in a single session was $10,000. But, he adds, it's not like he actually won, not compared to how much he spent on it and the problems that followed.
He independently sought help in 2010. “I knew I was spending too many hours at the casino.” He contacted the Problem Gambling Foundation. His parents also booked him into a private rehab programme.
It's been a hard road. He banned himself from casinos in New Zealand but ended up buying tickets to gamble for a day in Australia. He had a relatively high-paying job and a good credit rating and got into debt. “Loan sharks. Visa cards. Banks. It's so accessible to get money these days,” he says. “That was a major issue.”
He hit a particularly bad patch late last year but says he's turned himself around now. He's managed to keep up with gambling counselling and sport and has started applying for jobs. “Gambling for me – honestly, it's really ruined my life, at a young age. The bonus being, I've been able to try and turn things around now since I've identified I have an addiction.”
One thing that he particularly regrets is some of the friends he's lost, he says. “I feel I've wrecked a lot of relationships and friendships.” Others are still firmly sticking by him.
He doesn't think gambling is given enough weight in New Zealand. “Alcohol and gambling are legal; drugs are illegal. People forget about the problems that alcohol and gambling can cause.”
That's an opinion shared by Daniel, 26. Like most, he started gambling casually. He'd be out at the weekends at the pub or end up in the casino after a night out. “Just spending a little bit of money.”
He was also taking pills, though, and started selling to support his habit. As the money came in, he began putting down more. “I'd justify to myself that it was easy come, easy go.”
It got to the point where he'd be spending at least $400 a day. “To the point where I'd wake up in the morning and get high, and take drugs, and go down and spend a day in a casino and go down to the pub on the pokies. If I lost money, I'd go home and get more money.”
He'd ended up in a pretty dark place and gambling was the only thing that seemed to help, he says. “Especially if you win, you leave and you feel good. If you lose, you feel a hundred times worse.”
I can't justify it anymore,” he says, especially since he's now in full-time work. “No way I'm spending that money on gambling.
He might not have quit if he hadn't been caught – and charged – with supplying illegal drugs. While serving a two-year prison sentence, he started working with a counsellor, again from the Problem Gambling Foundation.
He's now out and he's not tempted. “I can't justify it anymore”, especially since he's now in full-time work. “No way I'm spending that money on gambling.”
Shane and Daniel are far from alone. The Department of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Health have estimated that at any given time between 0.3 per cent and 1.8 per cent of adults in New Zealand would score as problem gamblers, which works out to between 10,000 and 60,000 people – plus friends, family and other people around them, who are also likely to be affected.
A rate of 0.3 per cent would be lower than Australia (0.5-1 per cent), the UK (0.6 per cent), Canada (2.6 per cent) and Norway (0.7 per cent) according to a 2013 study by Business and Economic Research Ltd (BERL).
On the other hand, according to a 2014 report by UK consultancy H2 Gambling Capital, spending on gambling in New Zealand is the fourth-highest by capita in the world. In the 2012/2013 financial year gamblers spent almost $2.1 billion on the four main forms of gambling, according to government figures.
As for young people, in the year to June 2013, just under a thousand people aged under 30 sought face-to-face counselling from one of the country's free public gambling treatment services. Six clients were under 15. Sixty-three were teenagers aged between 15 and 19.
That still excludes friends and family members, gamblers who just called a phone helpline and those in private treatment (there's likely some crossover) – and, most crucially, young people with a gambling problem who haven't sought help.
There is some good news. A recent Auckland University of Technology trial – the largest of its kind in the world – found that even calling a free gambling helpline can do a lot to help. Three-quarters of first-time callers to New Zealand's 0800 Gambling Helpline had met their own goal of quitting or significantly reducing gambling one year later with most callers improved within the first three months, according to the study.
What can the gambling industry – and government – do to help?
For Shane, New Zealand's still not doing as much as Australia to warn people about gambling risk. Just small things, he says, like flashing a banner when talking about racing and TAB on TV. “They might not mean a lot to many people. But there's just little things that New Zealand's still not ahead with.”
He thinks it's unlikely “sinking lid” policies to bring down pokie numbers will ever reach zero. “Gambling is creating a lot of money for the economy, for the Government.”
Both men are crystal clear on the advice they'd pass to peers struggling with gambling. “Talk to people,” Daniel says. “Tell someone close to you so they can monitor it and keep an eye on it.”
Shane says people with gambling problems should not be scared to ask for help. “You might think it's just Grey Power going into these places but that's not true. There's a handful of young people. But still I don't think enough are probably putting up their hands.”
If you need to talk to someone about your own gambling or gaming , try these helplines.
National Gambling Helpline: Call 0800 654 655 (24/7) or text 8006
Problem Gambling Foundation: 0800 66 42 62 (main number) 0800 862 342 (Asian Family Services)
Auckland 09 638 0801
Hamilton 07 839 6871
Tauranga 07 578 9329
Wellington 04 389 6566
Christchurch 03 365 9659
Dunedin 03 477 9852
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