The Human Cost of Gambling Addiction

*Warning, this article contains discussions around mental health and suicide. The author of this article is not a medical professional and would therefore encourage any readers who have been affected by this content to get in touch with the mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM. Their contact details are at the bottom of the article*

There are between 340,000 and 1.4 million adults addicted to gambling in the UK, with at least 55,000 children also addicted. Certain forms of gambling – online slots, for example – have addiction rates higher than heroin

Gambling addiction is often referred to as the ‘silent’ or ‘hidden’ addiction as it has no common visible symptoms, unlike alcohol and drug abuse, which makes it more difficult to identify. However, research indicates there are between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides in the UK each year – a minimum of one every working day. Tragically, it is thought that these gambling-related suicides account for between 4 and 11% of the UK’s overall suicides.   

As well as being a very dangerous addiction, gambling is also a very unique addiction. It is perhaps the only addiction where an addict can ‘logically’ rationalise that the only way out of their addiction is to sustain their addiction, which often manifests as chasing losses.

For so many young people, football is their entry point to gambling. The gambling industry has effectively hitched itself to our beloved sport, with adverts, shirt sponsorship and celebrity endorsements making the two appear inseparable. 

Whether watching a game live on TV, catching up YouTube highlights or checking team news on Twitter, it is almost impossible  to engage with football without being encouraged to gamble.

Who remembers Ray Winstone looking somewhat menacingly into the camera at half time and shouting – almost threatening – ‘BET NOW’? Or, more recently, a rather tired-looking José Mourinho being mocked by a taxi driver for not being special?

Thanks to this association with football, generations of young fans are growing up thinking that putting a bet on is an essential part of watching football, and that by not doing so they are somehow missing out. 

Once introduced to gambling through football, gamblers are often cross-sold much more addictive – and profitable – products, including online slots and casino games, which are available online 24/7, not just for 90 minutes, several times a week.

It is important to recognise that the gambling industry actively relies on addiction for the bulk of its profit – between 60% and 87% of the £10 billion plus the industry makes each year comes from just 5% of gamblers. 

Betting adverts and gambling marketing also create a sense of normalisation, which makes it harder for people struggling with addiction to seek the help they need. Think about it – if you’re struggling with addiction and constantly confronted with air-brushed images of young, happy people, all having fun gambling, it makes you think that you are somehow ‘faulty’ for not being to gamble in a ‘normal’ way, perhaps even feeling embarrassed and failing to realise that you have a problem at all. 

Even the widely used term ‘problem gambler’, which refers to those who are addicted to gambling or suffering with gambling disorder, implies that the individual is somehow at fault, and absolves the gambling industry of any meaningful blame. This is despite gambling disorder being classified as a diagnosable psychiatric illness since 2013 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and research clearly indicating that anyone who uses an addictive product – some with addiction rates of up to 50% – can become addicted, not just ‘faulty’ individuals.

Football does so much good. It inspires, motivates and entertains us. The beautiful game enriches our lives and takes us to places that nothing else can; it plays a vital role in many communities up and down the country and unifies people from all different walks of life.

However, the game’s association with gambling is clearly contributing to a devastating epidemic of addiction and tragic loss of life. We cannot – and should not – continue to overlook this. Enough is enough.

Between April 2019 and March 2020 (the last full set of data available), the gambling industry made a profit of £10.2 billion (excluding National Lottery), but no amount of money can justify the lives ruined and lost in the pursuit of profit. 

Gambling is a devastating addiction, with addicts around six times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and 15 times more likely to take their own lives than members of the general population.

The pandemic has reminded us of the true value of looking out for each other. As we move ever closer to normality, we can’t forget these valuable lessons. 

As recent events regarding the proposed European Super League have shown, those who run the game at the top level can – and will – listen to fans, if their voices are loud enough. As Jock Stein (not Matt Busby, sorry Man United fans) put it: “without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.”

To support The Big Step’s campaign to kick gambling ads out of football, you can sign their petition here.

*All articles written on express the views of our writers. Whilst these are mostly aligned with our beliefs, they remain the independent opinions of our contributors.*

If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, the following organisations can help: