Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

GPs 'overlooking' problem gamblers

By Rowan Bridge
BBC Radio 5 live

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Former gambler Ian Semmell on his struggle to get treatment

The Royal College of GPs has told BBC Radio 5 live there is an "enormous issue" with doctors not realising their patients may have gambling problems.

The vice-chair of the college, Dr Clare Gerada, says she thinks they miss "the vast majority of individuals with problems... and, in particular, when patients present with debt problems, no-one would ask 'do you have scratch cards, do you bet on the horses on a regular basis?'"

Dr Gerada says it is important that GPs do more to recognise the problem and try to intervene.

She is being backed by the gambling charity GamCare, which says less than one per cent of problem gamblers are thought to be getting help.

Compulsive

In that sense, Ian Semmell became one of the lucky few.

Although he worked in the City, Ian became a compulsive gambler and found himself spending between five and 10 times his earnings on gambling - casinos, horses, the dogs, football matches.

The toll that it took on him was more than just financial though.

"I lost houses, businesses, jobs.

"I lived with that irrational thought pattern that gambling was a good way of getting money, and it was after many years that I realised that it was a good way of getting debts and losing possessions and relationships."

I lost houses, businesses, jobs
Ian Semmell, recovering compulsive gambler

He says when he went to his GP he received little help.

"You go to your GP and you're shaking, you're depressed, you're very miserable, and you go with various different reasons to go and see your doctor, hoping they might have an inkling as to what is going on.

"I went to see my GP on many occasions and was never once asked - I was asked plenty of times if I took drugs and smoked and drink - but never once, 'Do you gamble? Do you have a gambling problem?'"

Treatment

He says if he had been asked it might have meant getting treatment sooner than he did.

Ian finally got help in 1998 through the GamCare gambling hotline which referred him to a residential centre for problem gamblers.

GamCare's chief executive Andy McLellan says even though services for people with problems have improved in the last 12 years, the approach of GPs has not caught up.

"They themselves are not particularly aware of the issues to do with problem gambling, and perhaps the connections with some of the symptoms they may be seeing," he says.

"Secondly, a few GPs may be also thinking: 'If I find out they have a gambling problem, I actually don't know what to do with them.'

"So I think the important thing is for us to improve the awareness of GPs and put their patients in touch with us."



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