In Jack Ritchie’s first term of sixth form, when he was 17, he started to spend his lunch breaks at the bookies down the road from his school in Sheffield, staking his dinner money at the fixed-odds betting terminals. It became a regular thing. No one ever asked for any proof of age.
Early on, Jack had a big win. It was too much money to fit in his pocket; he had to ask the bookies to hold it for him until he could pick it up after school. “He came home with £1,000 in cash,” his mother, Liz, tells me, blinking in astonishment.
Jack only told his parents he’d been gambling a year later, when the £1,000 was long gone, along with the £5,000 his grandmother had left him, and every other spare penny he’d scraped together from bits and pieces of work and birthday presents. “He knew what he’d done was ridiculous and stupid,” says Charles, Jack’s father. “At that stage, we were naive. We’re not a gambling family. We thought, this is a young man growing up, doing stupid things, experimenting. We thought he’d grow out of it.”
Charles took Jack into every betting shop in Sheffield, where Jack left a photograph and signed a form that would exclude him from placing bets there. “There he was, a good-looking, ambitious 18-year-old, with his dad, going into these deeply depressing places.” Charles shakes his head. “He’d come out of them and say: ‘That’s not me. This isn’t what I am.’”
But Jack soon started visiting gambling websites to play online roulette. When he arrived in Hull for his first term at university, he blew his student grant in virtual casinos almost immediately. During the Christmas holidays, Liz and Charles bought software that blocked his access to gambling sites. But it expired after a year.
Jack’s gambling was intermittent – often triggered when an unsolicited email from one of the bookies landed in his inbox – but he began to feel controlled by it, Liz explains. “You lose your capacity for self-determination. Jack was used to being a clever boy. I think he will have experienced himself losing that, at an age when he needed to rely on it.”
At a time when he was supposed to be forming his identity, Jack began to feel it was slipping away from him. Liz shrugs. “He felt he was destroying himself.”
For as long as people have gambled, there have been gambling addicts. But over the past 15 years, a perfect storm of technological innovation and new freedoms for the gambling industry has left young people particularly vulnerable. A report by the Gambling Commission last year estimated there are now 55,000 problem gamblers aged 11-16 in England, Scotland and Wales, and 450,000 who gamble regularly. In this age group, gambling is more popular than smoking or taking drugs; 11% of 11 to 16-year-olds report that they gamble every week, compared to only 6% who smoke tobacco and 5% who take drugs.
Jack Ritchie was part of the first generation to begin their teenage years after the 2005 Gambling Act allowed bookmakers, casinos and gambling websites to advertise on television and radio. The industry now spends £1.5bn a year on marketing. Gambling has become normalised and ubiquitous – more than half the teams in the Premiere League carry betting firm logos on their shirts. A 2019 study by GambleAware found a 24% rise in industry spending on advertising and marketing campaigns between 2015 and 2018, and that, even if ads were aimed at adults, children still found them appealing. Jack’s generation was also the first to grow up when it was normal for teenagers to have laptops in their rooms and smartphones in their pockets. That made it possible to gamble 24 hours a day, without leaving your bedroom, without anyone else knowing.
Jack's distress came from the hold gambling had over his life and the feeling he could never escape it
In response to the Gambling Commission’s findings, the first NHS Young People’s National Problem Gambling Clinic was set up in London in December 2019. “The links between problem gambling and stress, depression and mental health problems are growing,” said the NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens . “We need to be clear. Tackling mental ill health caused by addiction is everyone’s responsibility – especially those firms that directly contribute to the problem.”
So far, those companies have been reluctant to change strategy. When Britain’s leading specialists on gambling disorders called on firms to suspend advertising early in the coronavirus lockdown, it took them three weeks to agree to begin to pull their ads. (From 9pm to 10pm on Friday 24 April on Channel 4, I counted commercials for gambling websites in every one of the three ad breaks). Regular gamblers are gambling more during lockdown, even without live sports fixtures to bet on.
While adult gambling problems are often measured in terms of debts, the damage done to children and young people can be more insidious, affecting their sense of themselves. For the Ritchie family, the consequences were devastating. On 22 November 2017, seven years after Jack placed his first bet, Liz and Charles’s “wonderful, warm, kind, happy” son took his own life. Gambling With Lives, the charity his parents founded after Jack’s death, estimates there could be up to 650 gambling-related suicides every year in the UK. The Ritchies are now in contact with more than 60 recently bereaved families; one lost a daughter, all the rest lost sons. The youngest killed himself less than a year ago, aged 18. They all started gambling as children.
I am speaking to Liz and Charles over Zoom from the kitchen table of the family home where Jack grew up with his two older sisters. I recognise it from a video on the Gambling With Lives website, which shows 6ft 4in Jack waltzing with his much shorter mother, bending her backwards over the kitchen sink as they collapse with laughter.
“He was a big, happy character,” Charles smiles. “Very popular, with lots of close friends.” He loved football; he cared about politics and was a big supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. “It’s easy to idealise somebody when they are dead, but he really was genuinely very warm-hearted. All his friends say what they miss about him is his big hugs,” Liz adds.
Nobody saw it as a problem. There were no warning bells. It felt so normalised. It's a bit of fun, as the adverts say
Jack’s friends all knew he liked to gamble. “Nobody saw it as a problem,” Charles says. “There were no warning bells. It felt so normalised that no one felt they needed to intervene. It’s a bit of fun, as the adverts say.”
Over seven years, Jack probably lost around £30,000. His distress over gambling was never really about the money; it came from the hold it had over his life and the feeling he could never escape it.
When he died, he was teaching English in Hanoi. He hadn’t gambled for three months before leaving the UK, and gambling is banned in Vietnam, so his parents felt it was behind him. Then, one Sunday in November 2017, Jack Skyped his parents and told them he was feeling down because he had gambled again, on British websites.
“We bought blocking software for his computer. During the call he installed it on his machine,” Charles says. “Or so we thought.”
At lunchtime three days later, Liz and Charles opened an email with a suicide note. They spent a frantic hour trying to locate Jack. An hour later, his body was found.
The Ritchies have no doubt that he died as a direct result of gambling. “We were able to piece together his last day, and, we can see that Jack crashed out, after a day of gambling, and he was dead within an hour and a half,” Charles says. “Gambling was the root and the trigger of his death.”
The coroner at Jack’s inquest asked everybody in court, including representatives from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Gambling Commission, to accept that Jack killed himself because of gambling. The Ritchies are bringing legal action to hold the government liable for Jack’s death, on the grounds that it didn’t provide adequate care for addicts, or sufficient warning about the dangers of gambling.
“Over the past 20 years, there’s been the growth of a kind of industrialised electronic gambling,” Charles says. “Fixed-odds betting terminals are the high-profile version, but you’ve got exactly the same games online.”
Dr Matt Gaskell, clinical lead and consultant psychologist for the NHS northern gambling clinics in Manchester, Leeds and Sunderland, tells me the most common formats that bring patients to the clinics are online slot machines, digital roulette and online in-play sports betting (where gamblers bet on specific aspects of an ongoing game, such as who is going to get the next yellow card). In the past, people put a stake on the outcome of a forthcoming event, such as a single football match or horse race. These new online formats offer never-ending opportunities to gamble.
“They are designed to maximise losses and what is called ‘time on device per user’,” Gaskell told the Gambling Related Harm all-party parliamentary group on 11 May. These digital products have design features that distort a gambler’s judgment. “They reward you with visual and auditory congratulations, even though you’re losing money,” Gaskell said. “So dopamine, this motivation chemical, is released, even when you’re losing… This pattern of rewards has repeatedly been demonstrated to develop habitual behaviour in animals and humans.”
It’s not just online bookies that exploit this pattern. A recent study of the most popular desktop videogames showed that more than 70% of games – even some designed for young children – now contain “loot boxes”: opportunities for players to spend money on mystery virtual items. They are commonplace in Fortnite, Overwatch and Fifa. Sega’s Football Manager routinely displays betting odds as a way of measuring probability; whenever League One Matches feature, they are always referred to along with the name of their official sponsor – Sky Bet League One. Last September, cognitive psychologists called for loot boxes to be regulated in the UK.
Liz Ritchie is a retired NHS consultant psychotherapist. “Children are being groomed to be gamblers,” she says. The App Store has rated Sega’s Football Manager suitable for ages 4+. “I do believe there will be a Jimmy Savile moment, and people will suddenly say, ‘What on earth were we doing?’ When your child dies, that curtain is ripped aside for you. We want to warn other parents because nobody warned us.”
Shortly before lockdown, I visit the headquarters of the new Young People’s National Problem Gambling Clinic, on a busy road in west London. The same building is home to the National Problem Gambling Clinic for adults aged 25 and over. In one of the consulting rooms, I meet consultant psychiatrist Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the director. She set up the adult clinic in 2008.
“A lot of our young people start with an early big win. That kicks off a disregulated approach.” Gambling disorder is a mental illness, she says. “It’s a loss of control over gambling behaviour, which for the majority of people is a recreational activity that should not cause any major problems.”
When Bowden-Jones describes the specific harms children and young people experience as a result of problem gambling, she could easily be describing the effects of drug addiction.
“Sadly, we’ve had a lot of students dropping out of school or university in the past because of gambling activities. The academic impact is enormous because they are up all night gambling. They lose friends because they borrow money and can’t repay it. They steal money. We see people with gambling problems drop out of their sports teams, lose interest in their hobbies, stop playing their musical instruments.”
The clinic was set up to reach problem gamblers as young as 13, but Bowden-Jones says the typical young person who reaches the service has hit a crisis point in their late teens, after leaving school. “They have no specific mentoring: it’s not the relationship between teachers and pupils, where teachers may spot something; at university or work, they are not so close. That’s where things can slip out of hand.”
Nine out of 10 of the problem gamblers they see are male. “They tend to be either extremely interested in sports – sports betting is a big problem – or have an overinflated sense of self in relation to poker abilities,” she says. “With young people, there’s a significant association with alcohol and drugs. Alcohol disinhibits them. Cocaine is a stimulant, it keeps you going all night. Low mood and anxiety can play a part: sometimes they are using the gambling to act almost as a self-medication.”
Bowden-Jones is used to hearing how her older patients fled physical, emotional or sexual abuse as children by running away to the arcade, and later the bookies. Now young people are choosing to escape online.
Last year, 355 people attended the national problem gambling clinic. At least half the patients have family histories of problem gambling. Early intervention can make a difference, Bowden-Jones says: “We know that high levels of impulsivity at the age of seven are already a predictor of potential problems with gambling in adulthood.”
But getting help to those who need it most is difficult: patients and their families need to refer themselves to the clinic, and many of the youngest problem gamblers will be hiding it. While older problem gamblers are treated in groups, young people are given individual cognitive behavioural therapy. “The aim is to completely stop gambling and never start again. Once a problem gambler, always a problem gambler. The prognosis can be good, but you need to be abstinent.”
There is therapy for parents, too. “Some young people are emotionally abusing their parents because they want money,” Bowden-Jones explains. “They will call in the middle of the night saying they have been hurt and they need money for medication.” The clinic offers parents strategies so they can ensure children are fed and have their rent paid, without giving them cash that will feed their addiction.
While she is careful to say that there is a lack of research on the link between gambling disorders and suicide in the UK, she knows how serious the problem can be. “In the last couple of years, we could discuss 12 cases at our weekly meeting and 10 of them would be suicidal.”
“So I’m recently 18. I’ve never had a job,” reads Josh Jones’s post on the Student Room online forum. “Recently (last 8-10 months) I’ve just been consumed by gambling. Started with house games of poker for £5 here, £10 there. Now I’ve lost over £1,000… I’m scared for my sanity. I still just really want to play poker as I am confident now that if I had $500+ to play with I could make a living from it… Doing maths at Bristol (grades permitting) as of October… Is it legal to gamble your student loan?”
“Seriously, seek help for that gambling addiction,” someone replies.
But Josh is insistent. “I am trying to train to be a professional poker player… Now I’ve improved a lot I’m out of money to play with.”
The final message is brief, and blunt. “And now Josh Jones is dead. Suicide due to his addiction, aged 23. Give up all of you. From Josh’s mum.”
I speak to Josh’s parents, Kim and Martin, in a video call from their home near Swindon. Josh was the middle son of three. There’s no history of gambling in their family. They are both retired engineers, and used to looking at things with a kind of logic that makes problem gambling particularly bewildering to them.
“He was the life and soul of the party,” Kim says. “Very gregarious, outgoing, intelligent. He probably thought he was more intelligent than he was, in terms of gambling.”
Josh played football and captained one of the university hockey teams. He was also a musician. “Basically, his life growing up was fulfilled. He wasn’t sitting there playing on his computer,” Kim frowns. “He was really happy.”
Martin and Kim found out about Josh’s gambling when he was 17 – they got a call from his school. “A member of staff overheard him in the canteen boasting to his friends about how much money he’d gambled with or how much he’d won,” Kim says.
Josh was gambling at night, on the laptop they had bought for his homework. A few early wins at online poker led him to believe he had a talent for it. His real talents – for academic work and music – were quickly subsumed by gambling.
He didn’t get the grades he needed to go to Bristol, after all (“I’m a gambling addict who totally flunked the summer exams with no revision,” he admitted in an online post) and instead studied maths at the University of Surrey. Within his first week as an undergraduate, he had lost his grant for the whole term.
His parents drip-fed him £20 here and there, enough that he could eat but not enough to gamble. They took over control of his bank account. They installed software to block gambling sites from his computer. Then Josh began to take out payday loans and visit casinos.
He lost in the order of £3,000. It’s not about the money. I think, in the end, it’s embarrassment and shame
Josh told his parents the compulsion to gamble was almost unbearable. “He would describe lying in bed, sweating, shaking, physically trying not to hit the button again, not to go back on the gambling site. To me, that’s describing almost exactly a drug addict’s cold turkey,” Martin says. “You can tell how deeply embedded in his brain it was.”
They encouraged him to get help. He had counselling at the student health service, and in his third year, referred himself to the adult problem gambling clinic in London, where he had about a dozen CBT sessions. “Although we felt it helped to some extent, it didn’t stop him,” Martin says. They eventually paid for private hypnotherapy at a Harley Street clinic. “After about the fourth session, he gambled on the way home. And he said to us, ‘You may as well save your money, it’s not doing any good.’ He just couldn’t stop.”
On 30 July 2015, Josh took the day off work to gamble. It was payday: he had earned £2,500 from his graduate accountancy job, plus a £1,000 bonus for the year, and he had worked out how to access his bank account. He owed people money and was convinced he could win everything he needed to pay them back. “And he lost it,” Martin says. “He lost in the order of £3,000, and that’s what caused his death. It’s not about the money. I think, in the end, it’s embarrassment and shame.”
When the police knocked on Martin and Kim’s door at 2am to break the news, they were not surprised. “I knew what they were here for,” Kim says. “For months, we’d been living under this cloud, waiting for this call.”
Like the Ritchies, the Joneses are convinced their son was killed by his gambling addiction. “We’ve got absolutely no doubt whatsoever,” Martin says. “The government, the Gambling Commission and the gambling industry are jointly responsible for his death – not only his death, but the death of hundreds, and the harm of hundreds of thousands.”
The gambling industry funds projects intended to protect children from gambling. GambleAware is funded by a voluntary levy on the industry, which came to £10.5m in the year from April 2019 to March 2020 – a tiny fraction of the £1.5bn spent on marketing. GambleAware funds GamCare, which operates the National Gambling Helpline, and has run a youth outreach programme in schools and youth clubs.
“We run interactive workshops that provide information about exactly what problem gambling is, raise awareness of what is available and help young people make better choices,” says Megan Pengelly, a programme manager for GamCare’s risk reduction projects. “We’re not going in, wagging the finger at young people. We’re trying to stimulate conversation around different attitudes towards gambling and providing some accurate information.” Pengelly says GamCare takes “great pains” to insure they work independently of the gambling companies that fund them.
“We hear young people’s experiences and attitudes in our interactive sessions. There tends to be a polarisation: at one end of the spectrum, you have young people who may be a bit laissez-faire about problem gambling, who are not that worried about it – maybe they have parents who gamble and don’t see it as a risk. At the other end, interestingly, you have young people who are fairly moralistic, who, at that time in their life, are very resistant to the idea of gambling. From our point of view, both ends of the spectrum are at risk. Young people who are judgmental of people who gamble – their attitudes will change; there’s a risk in that they might have an increased chance of experiencing shame or reluctance to seek help,” she says.
Bowden-Jones also goes into schools to talk to sixth formers. “They form long queues and ask you questions about whether they are doing it too much, so clearly there is a need there.” But she fears the message is not yet getting to 13 to 16-year-olds.
The gambling industry likes to emphasise individual responsibility. The GambleAware slogan (“When the fun stops, stop”) suggests that stopping is a straightforward choice that every individual can make. When I ask Bowden-Jones who is responsible for Britain’s child gambling addicts, she choses her words carefully. “It will be a mix of things. We, as a country, are allowing children too much exposure to gambling. The close connection with sports and gambling is an issue, the advertising is an issue, the marketing is an issue. Age verification is a very big issue.”
But parents need to take an active interest in what their children are doing online. “We know from research that people who have problem gambling issues tend to have less parental control.”
Of course, parents who have lost children despite every effort to monitor their spending and online activity see it differently. “The Gambling Act needs to be revised. It needs to be focused on preventing gambling harm – not reducing it,” Martin says.
“I think it’s potentially like the opioid scandal in America,” Liz says. “You’ve got very addictive products being portrayed as safe. You’ve got a legal product that’s generating a pool of addicts, particularly in the young.” She sighs. “And it’s bereaved families who are always at the prow of the boat somehow.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The National Problem Gambling Clinic can be contacted on 020 7381 7722 or email@example.com. The NHS Northern Gambling Service can be contacted on 0300 300 1490, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Australia the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.
Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org