Sam Elliott was 17 when he first gambled an ill-fated bet on Gareth Bale to score. By the time he went to university the next year, he developed an addiction via sports betting apps where he spent hundreds of pounds each day on the outcome of random football and basketball games.
“Because my only source of income was gambling, when I lost money the only way to win it back was to gamble more,” says Sam, who says his gambling became worse after he dropped out of two university courses over a few years. Though he’s now addiction-free, he is one of thousands of students being swept up by an invisible tsunami of compulsive gambling at UK universities.
The stats are staggering. The most recent research by the Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) in 2019 found that as many as 264,000 students are at risk of gambling-related harm. Sixteen to 24-year-olds have also been found to be the highest or second-highest age group for problem gambling every year since 2016, despite the fact some of them can’t legally gamble.
Yet despite the number of students with gambling problems, support at UK universities is almost non-existent, even as COVID and financial troubles are driving more and more students towards addiction.
Lewis, another ex-student gambler, won £64,000 on his first-ever bet aged 16 on a 12-match football accumulator he made on his dad’s account. The feeling of winning at 128,000 to one odds was incomparable, he tells me, but also created a toxic relationship with gambling.
A few years later, most of the winnings had gone, as had his student loan, almost all to online sports betting on Bet365. Triggered by worsening mental health and homesickness in his first year, Lewis lost his entire student loan in just a few days on a series of £500 and £800 bets on football and tennis. Three months into his degree, he ended up dropping out. Bet365 did not respond to a request for comment.
“I remember vividly just being in my halls, sat in my room just crying on the floor, just thinking what can I do right now,” he recalls emotionally. “I said to my parents, I just can’t do uni anymore because I was depressed and I wasn’t enjoying the course… That was certainly a reason but it was a half-truth.”
His problem gambling lasted for years after leaving university, driving him to take out ten payday loans over a week and a half to cover his debts. Now aged 25, Lewis cut gambling out of his life in April last year.
The crucial difference between gambling and other addictions is that it’s the only kind of addiction where doing more can be seen as a practical solution to the problems it caused in the first place. Money can often be a trigger for problem gambling, and countless studies have demonstrated a link between developing a gambling addiction and living in poverty.
Students aren’t impervious to this. A 2019 study by Save The Student found the average student spent £795 on the cost of living, almost £223 short of the £572 a month received from the average maintenance loan. One recent survey found that lack of money had pushed 48 percent of students to consider dropping out or deferring courses.
“When the loan isn’t enough you spend weeks on very little money,” says Katie Tarrant, a student outreach ambassador for YGAM. “You amass things you need to buy or pay for… all of these things add up and because student housing is so crap as well, these costs start to add up.”
Research for the National Union of Students in 2019 found that 30 percent of students had turned to gambling to deal with the rising cost of living. Coronavirus has arguably made things worse with a toxic combination of boredom, opportunity and exposure becoming a breeding ground for problem gambling.
Most of those VICE spoke to for this article said that mental health problems were a trigger for them to turn to gambling. Despite increases in funding for mental health support, universities are still struggling to provide enough support to students – 33 percent report needing support and 20 percent report having diagnosable mental health conditions.
Bray McAsh had gambled before going to university in Manchester, but it was the lack of contact time and a “downward spiral” in his first year there that pushed him to spend more and more of his student loans on gambling. Even when he moved to a different university it continued, and he ended up gambling his entire student loan in just 24 hours.
“I didn’t come out of my bedroom for two days, I couldn’t even speak, I was in such a state,” he tells me. The problem gambling continued through graduating and various jobs – he even had a stint working for William Hill, the very company he bet with. (William Hill declined to comment.)
This exacted a huge toll, losing him jobs, money and relationships. “I had a lot of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts – I think a lot of it linked together and gambling would take me away from what I was feeling.”
Despite huge numbers of students being found to have gambling addictions, support on campus is almost non-existent. VICE reached out to all 24 Russell Group universities as part of this piece, and of those that replied, none offered any form of specific support for problem gambling.
“Students are currently educated on the risks associated with things such as alcohol, drugs, and sex whilst at university. We’re keen for gambling to get the same level of attention,” says Lee Willows, the chief executive of YGAM.
The thing is: from TV ads, football shirt sponsorships, the lottery, loot boxes, bingo and more, gambling is everywhere. This normalisation is one of the biggest reasons gambling often isn’t treated the same as other addictions – it only received the same addiction classification as drugs and alcohol in 2013. With slogans like “Bet Responsibly”, the fault and blame for both becoming and overcoming addiction is placed on the individual.
“It’s ridiculous; these are addictive products. The whole rhetoric about responsible gambling is just hypocrisy,” says Alex, a former problem gambler who runs a podcast called The Invisible Addiction. “It’s completely demeaning because there’s already so much stigma about being weak for not being able to stay in control of it… It all fuels this idea it’s an individual problem, not an addiction.”
Until the relationship with gambling in society and on UK campuses changes, thousands of students will continue to struggle with addictions alone. Meanwhile, those who develop a gambling addiction while at university can often be left coping with its devastating impact for years afterwards. Research commissioned by gambling charity, GambleAware, has found problem gamblers are 15 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Even for those that manage to recover from their addiction, the aftermath is massive.
Every recovering gambling addict VICE spoke to reported having to pay off huge debts, losing friends and partners to their addiction and facing a massive and lasting toll on their physical and mental health. For many, the experience has left them with permanent anxiety and depression. “People hear that you’re a recovering addict and assume your life is normal now,” says Bray. “But it’s just not.”
Gambling is often called an “invisible addiction” – its signs are often hard to spot and there is far less awareness about the problem in society than with other addictions. But for the growing number of student gamblers who are left without support on UK campuses, the cost of that invisibility is devastating.