Matthew Hickey is the Chief Executive of the Gordon Moody Association, who provide advice, education and high quality innovative therapeutic support to problem gamblers and those affected by gambling, through residential, online and outreach services.

It’s been a year like no other. That’s stating the obvious now, but when I started as CEO at Gordon Moody in February 2020, I, like everyone else, had no idea of what was heading over the hill. The Covid-19 pandemic has tested us all, and I believe how well organisations are currently responding will be the key to their success or failure in the future.

Our service aims to turn lives around from problem gambling and gambling addiction. It relies on residential therapy and face to face interaction. We have two residential treatment centres, one in the West Midlands and the other on the Kent/London borders, as well as part-residential women and men specific programmes delivered in separate locations. We also provide specialist on-line support through the Gambling Therapy service and App.

Within days that model had to be dramatically adapted to something that was able to flex quickly to respond to the new situation and the needs of people trying to access our service. Using social media, online communication and discovering the full potential of Zoom and Teams developed at a breathless pace. For the people who needed us and for us as an organisation, this was critical. We could tell from the early days of the pandemic that something was happening, habits were changing and a potential perfect storm was lining up.

We were very concerned at such a rapid and growing spike in people referring themselves to us for support in the first few months of the pandemic and lockdown. The number contacting us increased eight-fold. Unfortunately, it’s a predictable impact of the lockdown, where people either try to find a means of escape or are desperate for a financial ‘windfall’.

The truth is, that Covid-19 in many ways created a perfect storm of boredom, financial constraint and isolation, that significantly increased the number of people experiencing serious issues related to gambling. Our organisation has a lot of expertise in tackling the problems people face in this area, but even in ‘better’ times we faced real challenges in the numbers we were dealing with. Those numbers were now rocketing upwards and we were seeing new trends of more women asking for support and more callers at a higher risk of suicide.

The topline figures from our first quarter report showed that:

  • Our outreach service increased from 30 interactions a month to 250 interactions per week during the quarter
  • That 45% of the hits to our website were from female users
  • The number of female users of the Gambling Therapy website saw an increase of nearly 100,000 year on year
  • The number of ‘affected others’ (family and friends) contacting the charity’s services rose significantly
  • There was a marked increase in the severity of the issues callers to the Gambling Therapy helpline were presenting with
  • Themes of trauma, anxiety, isolation and depression were all more prevalent as was suicide ideation with 58 calls during the quarter. This reached a peak at the height of the lockdown with five calls in one day containing themes of suicide ideation.

In all of this demand for support, in whatever form we have been ‘forced’ to operate, we try to understand and deal with is the root cause of why someone develops a gambling addiction. And, while these figures are concerning, there is also a great opportunity here to learn and act for the future.

I think in the same way that ten to 15 years ago mental health became something people started to speak openly about, I hope we can seize this opportunity to ensure that the stigma around gambling addiction - the hidden addiction - will disappear and people will feel that they can seek the help that they need and not hide away.

That’s why we have also continued with our work in understanding these new trends, and working out how best to respond with research on trauma and addiction, raising our profile and presence, and planning increased capacity to allow our expertise to be more widely accessed in the UK and potentially further afield.

Looking back on it all now, I am impressed and heartened by how effectively we responded. I believe it sets us up well for our 50th anniversary year in 2021. But while we feel we have built up considerable skills and expertise in 2020, this year has shown the scale of the challenge we are now facing.