“I just choked up,” says Byrne, recalling the darkest moment of her four-year gambling addiction. “I cried and cried. I was supposed to be the role model and solving her problems, and I felt like my little girl was trying everything she could think of to try to help me.”
The day had been one of mindless desperation for the mother of two. After taking Jennifer to school and her toddler to day care, she went straight to her local pub to play the pokies.
When she ran out of money, she remembered the box on Jennifer’s bookshelf. Racing home, Byrne opened the lid and, without hesitation or remorse, took the cash. “Once you make the decision that you want to keep going, you just do what you have to do,” she explains.
The "feminisation" of gamblingByrne did eventually get help. But stories like hers are becoming more and more familiar. An Australian study released earlier this year found that the expansion of poker machines since the 1990s has fuelled a “feminisation” of gambling. So socially acceptable has it become that an increasing number of women are developing serious problems. Once they start, they progress more quickly than men from recreational to problem gambling. In fact, the proportion of women in treatment increased from about 10 per cent before the liberalisation of gaming machines to 40–60 per cent afterwards.
Women are also being drawn into betting from their computers and mobile phones. While they typically start playing pokies in their 30s and 40s, women of all ages are trying out new forms of gambling online – sports betting, in particular – and new players are being recruited through social networking sites.
Freed from the need to visit betting venues, “there is definitely a shift”, observes Dr Sally Gainsbury, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Lismore, NSW. “More women are feeling more comfortable to do it. As more people try online gambling who wouldn’t otherwise gamble, greater numbers are at risk of developing gambling problems.”
About 12 per cent of Australian adults gamble at least once a week, with about eight per cent of these estimated to be problem gamblers. For every person with a gambling problem, another 5–10 people are said to suffer along with them, particularly family members. It isn’t just that their loved one has gambled and lost money that does the damage, but that they have lied to cover up their shameful addiction.
And having a flutter has never been easier to hide. Whether you’re at home or at work, or even in line at the supermarket, smartphone apps have made it possible to gamble anywhere, anytime. “These apps are instantly accessible and you can hook them up to your credit card and away you go,” notes Dr Gainsbury.
Women are also being drawn into online poker and casino games, such as blackjack and roulette, and bingo sites are targeting women by creating social communities around games through chat forums and instant messaging.
In Australia it is illegal for internet providers to offer gambling online, apart from licenced wagering and betting sites. But unregulated offshore sites are using names like Aussie Casino Games to attract players. Free-play sites are also common and, although no money is involved, they can be a training ground for people who want to replicate their big “wins” using real money.
But while internet gambling is on the rise, poker machines are still more addictive than any other form of gambling. The bigger the gambling problem, the more likely it is to be related to the pokies.
Problem gamblers say the urge to gamble is more powerful than anything they’ve ever experienced. Their heart races, adrenaline levels skyrocket, and shaking and sweating is not uncommon. Once they give in to that urge, it’s difficult to stop, despite most knowing how slim their chances are of winning. After all, it might be the next press of a button that triggers the jackpot.
Psychologists say...Psychologists say that women enter pokie venues as a way to escape problems or to cope with boredom, loneliness, depression or anxiety. Most are also under some kind of stress and living with unresolved trauma, including abusive relationships or childhood sexual abuse. Pokie venues provide a welcoming, safe place for women to go alone, and create a false sense of community.
Psychologist Dr Kirsten Dunn, from South Australia’s Statewide Gambling Therapy Service, says poker machine venues create an atmosphere that allows women to leave their troubles at the door. “It’s really reinforcing in terms of providing that escape from the stress or distress that’s pervading their lives elsewhere,” she remarks. “The only problem is that when they leave, all of that is still waiting for them and most of the time they’ve lost all their money. This then creates greater psychological distress, which then leads them back into the venue. So it’s very much a vicious cycle.”
When a woman first comes to Dr Dunn for help (less than 20 per cent of problem gamblers seek help), she says some have just started to lose control over their gambling, but most are at crisis point and have lost everything – their relationships, jobs, houses and even access to their children. There is such a sense of shame associated with gambling problems, particularly for women, that seeking help is often a last resort. Instead, they usually chase another jackpot to get themselves out of trouble. “People think they should be able to fix this themselves, but that the only way they can fix their financial difficulties is to have a big win, which means they have to go in and gamble again,” says Dr Dunn.
Unfortunately for some, death seems like the only way out.
In 2010, the South Australian coroner found that 24-year-old Katherine Natt’s suicide in 2006 was the direct result of her gambling addiction. Natt was the mother of two children, aged two and six, and had suffered heavy financial losses through her poker machine use. She was worried about losing custody of one or both of her children, and a journal entry shortly before she died revealed that she blamed gambling for her marriage breakdown: “I ruined my marriage with my pokie addiction and then it affected my dad financially when he had to bail me out of the mess that I had gotten myself into...I CAN’T STOP!”In the weeks before her death, bank records show Natt withdrew money as frequently as every two hours and gambled up to $1800 a night. By the time she died, she had run up a debt of $100,000.