Page last updated at 06:00 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Pioneering clinic for gambling addicts

By Adam Brimelow
Health Correspondent, BBC News

Roulette wheel
It is thought there are about 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK

In the heart of London's Soho district, nestled among the cafes and clubs, restaurants and pubs, there is a new NHS service.

Set up for a one-year trial on the fourth floor of a walk-in centre, it's the first NHS clinic for gambling addicts.

Supporters say this initiative is long overdue.

Rob, a 50-year-old recovering addict helped by Gamblers Anonymous, said: "Any form of therapy or clinic - especially for young people - could save lives, or even give them a quality of life."

For Rob, his path to gambling all started as a boy in Belfast, with errands to the bookies for his brothers.

Then there were roulette machines, pitch and toss in the street, cards and visits to the greyhounds four or five times a week.

'Illness of want'

"It progressed in a way that anything I had, I had to gamble. And I actually stole things in order to fuel my gambling. I'm not proud of that but that's the way it was."

Rob says through gambling he became "embedded in his own hell".

He was unable to communicate, to have relationships, or to do his work because of his consuming obsession.

He said: "It's the illness of want. I want it and I want it now. Gambling paints a pretty picture like a holiday in the Bahamas whereby you can have these things.

"It's like a pied piper coercing you in. And that appeals to young people."

London's gambling addiction clinic
The walk-in clinic is being run in Soho for a one year trial

For years Rob was fixated with winning back his losses. He thought he had a financial problem, not an illness. But, through his involvement with Gamblers Anonymous, he developed a better understanding of his condition.

The lead consultant psychiatrist at the new NHS gambling clinic, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, said that across society perceptions of gambling are changing.

She said: "People are beginning to realise that it's a serious illness that can cause people to become suicidal, that can lead people to lose their homes, to lose the relationships they most care about, and in many cases leads people who are extremely moral people to commit illegal acts to fund their addiction."

'Training colleagues'

The clinic helps people with extreme gambling problems, who may be referred on by counselling services or their GP, or they may refer themselves.

There's an initial hour-and-a-half psychiatric assessment with Dr Bowden-Jones.

Then there are 12 weeks of one-to-one cognitive behavioural therapy, another 12 weeks of group therapy, plus help for depression and anxiety, support for families and advice on managing debts.

It's thought there are about 300,000 problem gamblers across the UK. Dr Bowden-Jones hopes this clinic is just the start of a much wider service.

"My dream in the future would be to have other NHS centres set up throughout the country. And I've been training colleagues, psychiatrists in the subject, in the hope that people will be interested and want to pick it up."

This is something the British Medical Association also wants to see. Last year it published a report spelling out the health risks of gambling addiction, warning of the particular threat to young people from fruit machines and online gambling.

The BMA's head of science and ethics, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said the gambling industry should do much more to pay for the harm caused by addiction.

Compulsory levy?

"I think it's an interesting question whether the NHS should pay for it and we certainly believe that the levy on the gambling industry which is there to fund good causes, including education about gambling addiction, should be producing more money, and that that money should support many of these clinics."

The gaming industry supports problem gamblers through voluntary donations to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust.

It has helped to fund the new clinic in Soho, and also supports gambling research and education.

Playing cards
The BMA has warned of the health risks of gambling addiction,

It has agreed a target this year of 4.5m with the industry, but donations look set to fall well short.

The government is looking at whether to make the levy compulsory. The trust's director, Malcolm Bruce, said this was no idle threat.

He said: "We're not confident of reaching our target, but it's still in the gift of the gambling industry to put that money forward.

"Otherwise there will be a levy on the gambling industry and they will be forced to pay for this whole area. And that would be really unfortunate because some excellent progress has been made over the past seven or eight years in this area."

The clinic in Soho has already seen patients from all over England. If it proves successful, pressure will grow on the NHS to set up similar clinics across the country, and that will prompt further questions about who foots the bill.

People wanting to refer themselves can contact the clinic at

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