Oisin McConville warns of growing 'Hidden Problem' of gambling
By John Harrington
Former Armagh footballer, Oisin McConville, says there has been a massive increase in problem gambling during the Covid-19 Lockdown.
McConville himself had a serious gambling addiction until he sought treatment at the age of 30, and is keenly aware of the devastating impact it can have on people and those closest to them.
That’s why he’s happy to be a spokesperson for the ‘Hidden Problem’ campaign launched Extern Problem Gambling today.
“Yeah, they reckon an increase of 60 per cent in gambling during the pandemic,” says McConville. “That's more or less the figure that's floating around the world.
“So, yeah, I think the timing of it is good. I don't think there would be a bad time to do something like this, but, yeah, I think the time and the fact that the majority of gambling going on is online and I think that we probably even when the lockdowns finish up I think more people have been introduced to that online thing now and I don't think we'll ever go back to the level of traffic that there was in bookmakers shops.”
The GAA’s stance against gambling could be accurately described as a zero tolerance one with sponsorship by a betting firm of any competition, team, playing gear, or facility prohibited.
The gambling awareness campaign ‘Reduce the Odds’ was launched in 2018, and the Healthy Clubs Project has also been to the fore in helping GAA members with gambling addiction.
But, despite this concerted effort, McConville says that there’s a greater incidence of problem gambling among those who play team sports than the rest of society.
“I don't know if you've seen the stat, but if you play competitive team sport you're three times more likely to have a gambling problem,” says McConville.
“That for me when I first heard that it was pretty stark but not surprising.
“I think it's a big part of the culture and there's a couple of reasons for that.
“One of the reasons is that if you're playing any sort of high level sport, then alcohol and drugs are usually taking a major back seat, especially during the season. And people see gambling as a harmless pastime if that's the best way to put it.
“And, don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-gambling, and for a lot of people it is a harmless pastime and it's something that some people can do socially.
“But once it gets a grip of you then that's where the problems start to manifest themselves. I would have said that the teams that I played on had a gambling culture within them.
“But, on the face of it, I was the one who was gambling compulsively because I wasn't just gambling with them, I was gambling on my own. If I was doing just the gambling that I was doing with them, we were all throwing a fiver on the way down the road on the bus or whatever, I think that was a very social thing, a very manageable thing, but the stuff I was doing away from that was very unmanageable.
“It's the crux of a lot of the conversations that go on in buses and in changing rooms up and down the country and WhatsApp groups is dominated by it. Yeah, I think it's very prevalent within sports teams.”
As part of the ‘Hidden Problem’ campaign, Extern Problem Gambling have set up a freephone number you can ring if you think that excessive gambling has become a problem in your life.
McConville believes that will be a very valuable resource because reaching out for help can be a very first difficult step for problem gamblers.
“I think the first thing is that it's very difficult to admit something like this to a family member or a friend because there's a couple of things at play.
“There's the pride thing. And usually with gamblers whenever we tell people we have a problem it's usually at crisis point.
“And the fact that it's at crisis point means that you could be talking about the loss of a family home or something like that. You could be talking about severe financial difficulties.
“But also, huge emotional upheaval. And I think a lot of times people just aren't willing to share that with a family member. And, as you say, the buffer zone between that could be a number, talking to someone on the other end of a line, to make sense of where exactly they are at.
“There's a massive piece in this about sorting out your finances. But there's also a massive piece in this sometimes about just damage limitation, keeping someone alive for a certain amount of time.
“I know that sounds dramatic, but that sometimes is how important this stuff is to keep someone alive and to point out to them that this sort of thing can be sorted out.
“There's obviously a process to doing that, but once you've shared it with somebody you've started that process.”
From working with gambling addicts on a one to one basis, McConville has discovered that the first step to helping them is making them see the reality of just how big a problem they have.
“What I do for a living is I work for a foundation called Sporting Chance,” he says.
“It was a foundation set up 20 plus years ago by Tony Adams because he didn't see the support there for sports-people.
“One of the first things we do with somebody, who may not be sure that they have an issue, we'll do a financial health check.
“So if you're an online gambler, you're entitled to all of your information - we get that. I would talk to that person - they could say to me 'I don't really know if I have a problem, spending a good bit of time gambling but I'm not losing any money.'
“We go through the finances 'Well there you go, you lost fifty grand in three months or 500 quid you couldn't afford to lose.' Sometimes, people need to see it in black and white to know what's going on.
“To get away from the finances, the big thing is what affect is it having in your life, on your relationships? Are you as attentive with your kids, is it causing issues in your work-place?
“If people then are willing to be honest with themselves they'll realise it is affecting all of those things. That's when people go, 'wow, I have an issue here, a massive issue.'”
McConville himself hasn’t gambled for 16 years, but still refers to himself as a gambling addict.
It’s something he knows he needs to continue working hard on to prevent a relapse.
"A lot of people think when you go into treatment, you get a tablet and that's you, you're cured for life,” he says.
“But, no, it's something I continue to work on. I am almost 16 years away from gambling but I still go to Gamblers Anonymous. The reason I do that a lot of the time is to remind myself but to check in.
“People think Gamblers Anonymous is about people telling their war stories about what things happened, how I ended up here, how much I've lost and all that sort of thing.
"It's more about emotions and how I feel. It's a powerful place to be when you see men from between the ages of 18 and 80 talking about their emotions. It's not something you hear in the changing room to be honest so it's a completely different space.
"It's where you can share things safely. I'm lucky I'm able to share things at home, I'm sure my wife doesn't really always want to hear the stuff but I'm able to come home from work and share.
"My gambling losses used to shape how I was for the week or the next few days. Football matches used to shape how I was. I'm able to snap out of that just that little bit quicker now and I'm more in check.
"I'm more aware of myself than I ever have. When I went into treatment at 30 years of age, I thought someone in addiction was a guy on a park bench with a bottle wine in a brown bag.
“How did I get to 30 years of age thinking that? So I had no self-awareness of what was going on. I just kept looking myself in the mirror and saying, 'That's not me, I'm not that person.
“I don't look like somebody who's addicted. But believe me, I was addicted and I was in a bad place.
"Just the toolbox that I was taught, I keep opening up that toolbox and using them."
Less than 1 percent of people who could benefit from treatment from problem gambling ever seek it. Extern Problem Gambling provides support for anyone affected by problem gambling and offers remote services by fully qualified and accredited addiction counsellors.
If you or someone you know needs help with dealing with gambling, you can get help and support now by sending a text to Extern Problem Gambling on 089 241 5401 (ROI) or 07537142265 (NI).
For more details, please visit: https://www.problemgambling.ie/