A shocking increase in the number of women who seek help with gambling addiction is evident In the previous year, 76%. And new research suggests that for women – unlike men – it’s a method of coping with emotional trauma. Sally Williams conducts an investigation

 Jessica was invited to go for a night at the dog races in 2018 Luck was on her side and she won £5,000 from a £1 bet.

But what should have been a dream come true for the cash-strapped mental health nurse – who could now pay off her car loan – was the start of a slide into a gambling addiction.

For Jessica, now 27, a win at the dogs or on an online game – to which she eventually lost £10,000 – was a way to numb the trauma of her troubled past.

Mary, 46 years old, is employed in PR. She lives in Devon near Naomi, 42. Naomi works part-time as an administrator. Mary saw a difference in her cousin four years back. Whenever she dropped in, Naomi would be in her bedroom and her two children – then eight and 11 – would be fending for themselves downstairs. Mary thought her cousin felt low at the beginning. She was dealing with the aftermath of a messy divorce – Naomi had discovered her husband was having an affair – as well as grieving for her recently deceased brother. She began asking Mary for money. ‘Just small amounts at first, £10 or £20 once a fortnight,’ remembers Mary. ‘It wasn’t a big deal. Then larger sums, like £100.’ Shortly afterwards, Mary confronted her cousin. ‘She admitted she was gambling at night on her phone. It was mostly slot machines. Sometimes, horses.

Over a few months it all came out: she had 11 bank cards and several payday loans and had built up a debt of £70,000 over 18 months. She was depressed and using gambling as an escape.’

Henrietta Bowden Jones is a London-based consultant psychiatrist who founded and directed the National Problem Gambling Clinic. She believes problematic gambling, which involves the use of money in an abusive or harmful way to others, in women can often be linked with trauma. Bowden-Jones conducted an extensive audit on 80 women 25 to 55 years old who had been referred from her clinic in 2016. She found that many of them had gone through a difficult life experience such as an abusive marriage and sudden loss. Of the group studied, most played online casino games (such as roulette, slots, bingo, cards) and some had debts of more than £100,000.

Gambling’s still seen as a male activity. Shame can stop women getting help 

‘A lot of the young men I see have inherited a vulnerability to pathological gambling – they gamble compulsively without having had any trauma. In the women, I don’t see that genetic disposition. You will usually hear an extremely complex story. Attachment, separation issues, mental health issues and trauma are all part of it.’

Bowden Jones emphasizes that too little research has been conducted to draw any conclusions about gender-based triggers of problematic gambling. However, she found that female gamblers experience additional distress due to the stigma associated with having a gambling disorder. ‘I’m not saying there isn’t any shame in men, but there is an enormous amount in women.’

Here are 5 indicators you could have a problem with gambling

Preoccupation Gambling can often be a warning sign that something is wrong.

Withdrawal Removing yourself from social and professional situations so that you can place a bet is another warning that your gambling might be going too far and that the urge to gamble is potentially harming other areas of your life.

EscapeSometimes life can seem overwhelming. You might want to get away from it. Gambling is an indicator of gambling that can cause you to lose significant money.

Chasing lossesGambling has the main purpose of winning money. During a gambling session, that motive can change to chasing losses – where your aim goes from winning money to winning back the money you have already lost. It can lead to more serious losses and could be very dangerous.

LyingYou may be hiding your spending or lying about how you spent it. This could also indicate that your gambling habits are affecting your personal relationships and the health of your family.


Three years before her lucky night at the dog track Jessica, then 21, began dating Adam – a guy with a murky past. Two years later, he attacked Jessica. Jessica believes that this attack was what started her gambling addiction. After leaving Adam, she became extremely withdraw. ‘I didn’t want to talk to anyone. People would ask, “Are you OK?” but I wanted them to leave me alone.’

She was prescribed Valium, which  she hoped would ‘shut off’ her brain, but by 2019 things really started to fall apart. Jessica had found a new route to oblivion: an online slot game where players paid £1 for a spin and a chance to win up to £80. She was using all her monthly salary of £1,200 to gamble and had signed up for three credit cards. She also spent £4,000 of her student loan that was supposed to fund a psychology degree. She did win money – at least £2,000 every other month – but lost more. Gambling had become her entire focus; she’d even gamble on the loo. ‘It was a way of shutting off,’ Jessica explains. ‘I never thought about anything else while I was doing it.’

It is hard to estimate the percentage of female gamblers. Nearly 86,000 females in England are considered to be problematic gamblers according to the Health Survey for England 2018. The Gordon Moody charity which assists those who are most affected by gambling showed an increase of 76% in women seeking their help in 2020. This accounted for more than 90,000 women across the UK – the highest figure ever recorded.

Statistics from the Gambling Commission show that more women are taking part in gambling – a rise from 41 per cent in 2018 to 43 per cent in 2019 – and that the most significant growth in online gaming is also among women, from 15 per cent in 2018 to 17 per cent in 2020. However, experts believe that many women are still embarrassed and unable to share their stories.

Heather Wardle (a University of Glasgow social science professor and expert in gambling and women) believes we’re assessing addiction with tools that are targeted at men. A key instrument is the Problem Gambling Severity Index. This self-assessment tool has nine questions and was developed in 2001. Wardle believes it fails to capture women’s experiences. Wardle believes it fails to capture women’s experiences. ‘But,’ says Wardle, ‘it doesn’t cover relationship difficulties and breakdowns or consider that women might experience greater stress and anxiety because of the stigma from being a woman who gambles.’

The reality is, action is required. A cross-party panel of MPs investigating gambling harm organized a forum that was focused on women earlier this year. ‘That was massive,’ says Wardle. ‘It’s very hard for a woman to talk about her difficulties when it’s still seen as a male activity.’

Nadine, an ex-gambler, is in agreement. ‘They’ve entered a man’s world and look what’s happened,’ is how she puts it. ‘Shame can stop women from getting help.’

A recent Daily Mail articles show how prevalent female problematic gambling is

An article in the Daily Mail recently showed how common female problems gambling is

Jessica finally left a message for charity GamCare but when they called back, at first she couldn’t answer. ‘A counsellor kept ringing but I just ignored it. My face was red. It was me, a mental healthcare worker. I should have been fine.’ Eventually Jessica agreed to speak to the counsellor, who drew up a timeline of significant events and made Jessica think about how she reacted to certain scenarios. ‘She gave me tools – for example, drawing up a budget and getting rid of my phone. That was hard, I had to tell everyone that I’d lost it. Mostly, she made me feel I wasn’t a bad person, I was just stuck.’


Jessica hasn’t gambled since March 2020 but still owes £3,000. ‘The gambling sites should do more. If you’re going through any kind of trauma, you are likely to be on your own. Who is going to tell you to stop?’

Mary helped Naomi and reached out to Step Change, a debt charity. ‘She must have been so lonely and scared about losing the house, about her ex-husband getting custody of the children,’ says Mary. ‘Step Change were brilliant. They organised a repayment plan and told us to negotiate the debt with the companies.’

Naomi was last seen gambling three years back. With financial help from her family, she now has £30,000 left to repay and possesses just one debit card. ‘It’s important that relatives are not judgmental, even though you might feel alarmed at the amount of money lost,’ says Mary. ‘The gambler is in so much pain already. The important thing is to get them help.’

  Anyone concerned about their own or a loved one’s gambling can contact the National Gambling Helpline for free on 0808 8020 133. Gamcare.org.uk runs a women’s online group chatroom on Saturdays from 6.30pm-7.30pm

The names of some people have been modified. GamCare provides additional information to help anyone who has been harmed through gambling.