30 year old Matt Zarb-Cousin is a recovered gambling addict and now co-founder of Gamban, providers of specialist gambling blocking software. In addition to this, Matt is the Director of Clean Up Gambling, which is lobbying for reforms to our gambling laws; Matt was also a spokesperson for the Campaign For Fairer Gambling which ran the 'Stop the FOBTs' campaign. In 2019, Campaign For Fairer Gambling were hugely influential in the government decision to change the maximum bet on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT) from £100 to £2. We recently had the privilege of speaking with Matt to learn more about his relationship with gambling, and why he is so dedicated in his mission to bring about changes to The Gambling Act 2005 and protect others from suffering the same harm that he did as a result of a gambling addiction.
Addicted To Gambling
Matt was only 16 years old, and still at school, when he became addicted to FOBT. Matt’s addiction continued for the next 4 years, by which point his gambling debts had risen to £20,000 and Matt became suicidal:
“Just before I turned 20, I really wanted to take my own life. It's difficult to explain, but looking back, I don’t think it was about the money. It was about where the addiction had led me to. All of the things that had happened, the things that I'd missed out on. Gambling had distracted me from my life for so long. The distraction of the gambling addiction helped me escape from a depression that it [the gambling] had created; and if I couldn't gamble, I had to face up to the depression. I could pretend I was normal, I was fine, and that there was nothing wrong with me while I was gambling”.
“ I could pretend I was normal, I was fine, and that there was nothing wrong with me while I was gambling”.
The Recovery Process
Thankfully Matt contacted his parents for help and he was able to receive support and cognitive behavioural therapy which helped him to control his addiction, and eventually brought it under control. However, 10 years later, Matt still takes medication for his mental health conditions, which he firmly believes were caused by the gambling addiction:
“I don’t believe I would have had the mental health conditions that I have experienced in the last 10 years if it wasn’t for the addiction. It extends way past paying my debts back. I paid my debts back five years ago, but I continue to take medication for my mental health”.
“The difficult bit for me was after the treatment. If I had known that I was going to experience mental health problems, and I was prepared for it and knew that it was part of the recovery process, I think I would have handled it better than I did. I was severely depressed and I think people coming out of treatment need support. This is why I think prevention is better”.
“The difficult bit for me was after the treatment. If I had known that I was going to experience mental health problems, and I was prepared for it and knew that it was part of the recovery process, I think I would have handled it better than I did”.
Helping Others With A Gambling Addiction
Matt was so affected by his gambling addiction and the impact on his mental health that he wanted to do something to help others who might be in a similar situation. That is how Gamban came about: “When I saw smartphones, I thought, imagine having a fixed odds betting terminal in my pocket. It would have been a disaster. I thought, what can we do? Can we do anything to create some friction so that people can discreetly abstain from gambling if they wish, without impacting their life in other areas too much? It [Gamban] gives people the opportunity to abstain, if they think that's what's best for them”.
Lockdown And The Gambling Industry
Matt strongly believes that lockdown has had a significant impact on the amount of people accessing online gambling and betting sites:
“One thing I've noticed is, from the gambling commission data, and from a couple of studies I’ve seen, is that the regular gamblers are gambling more during lockdown. It’s the regular gamblers that drive most of the profits and who are most likely to be at risk. And those that gambled on football and other sporting events before lockdown, that then migrated to slots and casino games, are gambling more and exhibiting behaviours that suggest they are experiencing harm. It’s the regular gamblers moving from betting on the sports fixtures, to the more addictive slots and casino products, which the industry markets heavily on social media, who are most at risk”.
"It’s the regular gamblers moving from betting on the sports fixtures, to the more addictive slots and casino products, which the industry markets heavily on social media, who are most at risk”.
“I believe gambling is the only addiction where you can convince yourself that by carrying on with the thing that you’re addicted to, it will solve all the problems that the addiction creates. That is because you can convince yourself that you’re one win away, or a succession of wins away, from clearing your debts and winning it all back. And that's a very powerful thing to be able to tell yourself, to carry on even though it's irrational. I think it’s important to educate people in recovery about how it's impossible to win”.
Matt concludes: “I think the work being done with the NHS Northern Gambling Service is brilliant. Some of the treatment that is being brought to the foreground, related to things like how gambling products can play a part in inducing or exacerbating addiction, is fantastic. Explaining to people how they’ve become addicted is so important. It’s not just about their predisposition to addiction, it’s not an issue of people being ‘faulty’ individuals. There is an industry that is working to get people addicted, and it’s important to understand how that changes people’s brains. This is something I only discovered about a year or two after I gave up gambling. And that's what drew me into activism”.