Lee Willows: After gambling nearly led me to suicide, YGAM wants to warn about gaming dangers


lee willows
GAM Founder and Chief Executive Lee Willows talks to Gambling Insider about the painful story of his gambling addiction and his attempts to rectify his mistakes

“Maybe this is why I can work with the industry. Effective regulation is critical but harm prevention is going to be far more effective if companies are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. By working with operators and raising their own awareness of the utter despair of gambling addiction – particularly getting them to face up to the issues of youth gambling - I think we can help make harm prevention far more effective than is possible under a traditional compliance model.”

Lee Willows presents an interesting paradox for the gambling industry, representing the darker side of the gambling experience, but also what can happen when stories change after responsibility for a person’s actions is accepted. As Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM), set up in 2014, Willows uses his extensive experience of working in the education sector to teach young people about the potential risks of gambling and social gaming.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Willows is a former gambling addict, but one who wishes to bring about change by working with the industry rather than deciding to give it a public thrashing. After hearing brief details about his story when he spoke at the Future of Research, Education & Treatment Into Problem Gambling seminar hosted by the All Party Betting & Gaming Group in June, Gambling Insider wanted to catch up with Willows in London about what drove him to the point of deciding to end his own addiction and prevent others from going down a similar path.

I am hugely embarrassed by these actions and thoroughly ashamed of what I did
What is striking is that Willows appears to have come to terms with his actions to the extent that he can speak openly and honestly about what happened to him in an addiction that lasted for over a year, accepting his wrongdoing and only pausing for slight moments of thought when elaborating on events.

That wrongdoing, which we will come to later, was the eventual result of an unexpected London casino visit in September 2012, as B1 slot machines in casinos were about to control his life. Willows says: “I was with some friends in the West End and we had tickets to go and see an ITV Studios programme. We couldn’t get in, because we had the wrong tickets, so we ended up in a casino in London. I put a 50p stake into a slot machine.

“At that time, the maximum prize was £4,000 and the maximum stake was £2. I won the £4,000 progressive jackpot and for some reason, I don’t know why, I then moved very quickly to going into the casino almost daily, sometimes twice a day – staying for several hours at a time.”

As is the case with many gambling addicts, the amount of time and effort spent playing the games at two London casinos, where Willows would play constantly after work and sometimes for entire weekends, did not lead to profit. Willlows recalls being “treated like a VIP” in the casinos, with the only interjections within the sessions being the staff asking him if he would like another complimentary drink.

At the time, Willows was working as the Chief Executive of Trailblazers Mentoring, a charity that works with young offenders (get ready for irony). While he had not been in need of the money that night where it all began, financial problems soon mounted up for Willows, and the answer was to resort to theft to continue funding the addiction.

“I had a number of £25,000 unsecured loans and spent all the money. I then went to payday loan companies and spent all that they gave me too.” he says. “When I could no longer get money, I then regrettably stole just under £20,000 from my employer. I am hugely embarrassed by these actions and thoroughly ashamed of what I did.”

The gambling habit needed to be tamed, and by the time Willows had built up the courage to tell his chairman in November 2013 about what had been going on, including the theft, not only was he in considerable debt, but an occurrence that would have been far more sinister had to be prevented. He says: “I went to the chairman’s house and told him what was happening. He wanted to know why I wanted to see him so urgently and the reason why I wanted to see him so urgently is that the day before, when I decided I needed to take personal responsibility, I had planned to take my own life.

“I had booked a plane ticket to Thailand, because I used to love travelling before my addiction. I used to go on four or five holidays a year with my partner. It was fantastic and I hadn’t been on holiday for a good three years. I got the plane ticket and I was going to go to Bangkok, purchase a gun or knife then travel by rail to one of the southern islands and kill myself. Travelling by rail means I would not have to go through airport scanners and I even identified the hotel I was going to stay. I was surprised I didn’t go through with that, because I’m a guy with conviction. Normally, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. To this day, I’m really surprised I didn’t follow through with committing suicide, but I didn’t. When you write your suicide letter and plan everything, it’s a surreal, comforting and peaceful experience.”

The dark clouds that had been surrounding Willows, and led to such horrifying thoughts, were set to subside. Willows was aided by the fact that his actions were totally out of character, which led to leniency being granted by the judge ruling on his case, but Willows still had to face the consequences. He says: “I agreed I would pay back the money, resign from my post and go into treatment. What happened was I did resign from my post, I did go into treatment with the National Problem Gambling Clinic and the trustees had to sort out what they wanted to do.

“There was disagreement over what the trustees wanted to do. Some wanted to support me and some wanted to report it to the police. I left in November 2013. I got a phone call from the police in January 2014, saying that the prosecution was going to be brought. I then went to the police station, confessed to everything and showed them all the evidence. I went to a magistrates’ court for prosecution and then a crown court for sentencing. I received a 16-month suspended sentence in August 2014.” Willows is happy to admit that he should have served time in prison, but the sentence was suspended due to the positive references that had been written for him by his former employer.

That judgement came during an arduous process of treatment, arranged after Willows’ confession to his chairman. Two spells of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) marked the beginning of the upturn in the line graph. “I hadn’t stopped gambling, even though I had no money and was on benefits, as I then had this vision that I could gamble within my means, so the amount of money I was spending was far less, but I was still gambling,” says Willows.

“Again, what came into my mind was: ‘I’ve got to stop this.’ I went to a second CBT course, this time with a different facilitator, Neil Smith, who is the Principal Clinical Psychologist of the National Problem Gambling Clinic. That course was exceptional and I think what made it exceptional was that he was very direct. He said: ‘You lot have got to stop gambling.’ He was very direct in the way he facilitated the course. There were other professionals on the course that had got themselves into a problem, so it was a more useful group for me.

“That second group consisted of CBT and some one-to-one counselling. That gave me the motivation to stop really. The National Problem Gambling Clinic saved my life and gave me the practical tools to plan and look forward. I wanted to be surrounded by positive people who were moving forward and not by people who were still struggling. I wanted hope and I was determined to stop. While it’s not for everybody, CBT and the way it was facilitated, literally changed my life. The sounds and visuals from the slot machines and the smells of the casino did subside and I began to get my mind back and get pleasure again from activities that were not gambling related.”

At the time I was addicted, I didn’t give a monkeys who funded the treatment
It is the topic of treatment that can cause debate, as some may not be happy about the fact that the NHS does not offer specific treatment for gambling addiction, and there appears to be a lack of independent action in this field. Gambling was reclassified from being a compulsion to full addiction status in 2013, but it is still not treated as a public health issue. The Guardian ran an article about the opposition to YGAM’s funding policy, where some people expressed their concerns about direct gambling industry funding.

Willows’ personal view is that the fact that treatment is there at all is what is important, regardless of how it is being funded. He says: “I don’t know whether it’s ethical or not, but you know what? At the time I was addicted, I didn’t give a monkeys who funded the treatment. I needed help and I don’t care if the industry paid for it. I wanted intervention, help and support and that’s what I got. If the industry didn’t fund it, and they should fund more of it, then who else would? For an addict, at your time of crisis, are you really bothered about who funds your treatment? If I did not get the support I needed, it is likely I’d still be gambling now.”

Willows’ gambling addiction is unique in the sense that something positive has eventually been produced from the experience. Willows says: “A small number of former addicts are now contributing positively in this space by establishing organisations to help those affected by gambling-related harm, with a focus on treatment and support. This brings a new and unique insight.” YGAM launched as a not-for-profit company in late 2014 and was granted UK-registered charity status in 2015. The charity’s purpose is to educate young people about the potential risks of gambling and social gaming by training teachers, youth workers, community health workers etc., without coming down on one side or the other of the argument about whether gambling would be a positive influence on their lives.

Some figures back up the idea that young people need to understand the health risks associated with gambling, with a third of all calls to the National Problem Gambling helpline being from people under the age of 24, according to GamCare. A 2015 National Lottery Commission survey showed that 64% of under 16s had played an online gambling-style game on their smartphone or tablet in the previous seven days. A total of 0.6% of 11-15 year-olds are classed as problem gamblers and 1.2% fall into the at-risk gamblers category.

Willows says: “It is important that gambling and social gaming form part of a school or college’s PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education and is delivered alongside other risky behaviours such as drinking alcohol, having sex or digital resilience. It is all about informed choice and knowing where help is available. Given the stigma of gambling addictions, addicts tend to reach out for help when it is too late and their life is in chaos.”

What I’ve learned very quickly is that there is relatively little focus on youth gambling
YGAM trains those whom have influence over young people’s behaviour and development. The charity’s articles state they support those who work with seven to 25-year-olds. He says: “We train teachers with our education resources so that they can deliver responsible gambling/gaming as part of the PSHE curriculum in schools. We train other young people to become mentors. These are psychology students at university and they can deliver awareness programs at universities, because we all know that university students are an at-risk group. They’re away from home for the first time and have student loans. Some students may see it as an opportunity to double up on their student loan, so there are money management skills there.

“What I’ve learned very quickly is that there is relatively little focus on youth gambling. We have also learned quickly that educational organisations require formally accredited and quality-assured programmes. We are delighted to have been awarded the prestigious PSHE Association quality-mark for our resources and accreditation from the Ofqual-approved awarding body, ASDAN. We are currently building upon this accreditation as we are on a journey to achieve Pearson / Edexcel accreditation and quality-assurance.”

The industry is keen for YGAM to make an impact, with Gala Coral, Bet365, the Senet Group, Bet Victor, Aspers, Unibet, Paddy Power and Caesars Entertainment all being listed as partners. Working with the industry, while also warning about its effects, is crucial for YGAM. The charity has also secured funding from charitable trusts and foundations, sales and London livery firms.

What makes Willows unlike some other former gambling addicts is that he does not appear to place blame on the industry or any individual operator for what happened to him. His aim seems closer to being to encourage the industry to do more to work with addicts, as opposed to letting them get on with it and dealing with the carnage later on. “My motivation is not to try and change the law and regulation – there are plenty of people with greater expertise than me in that area,” he says. “My motivation is to ensure that young people and those who nurture their development are made aware of the potential risks of gambling and the sources of help for those who get into difficulties. It is about informed choice as I said earlier.

“We see this time and time again. Addicts only reach out for help when it is at crisis point. For every other addictive behaviour, there are education programmes there, particularly for young people, and they do reach out before it gets to that crisis point. If we do that, then in my view, that is going to be far more effective and a far more engaging model than campaigning against products or legislation and regulation in this country.”

Staying on the topic of legislation, an issue that continues to cause extensive debate across the industry is the possibility of reducing the £100 maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Despite what he has encountered, Willows is cautious about employing a one size fits all approach to curbing gambling addiction rates. “I was on B1 machines and that was with a £2 maximum stake,” he says. “We don’t get involved in the FOBT debate. Our focus is on prevention through education rather than the politics of gambling. We are a small organisation trying to make a positive impact on an important issue – and that means that we have to focus.”

It is due to this slightly cautious approach Willows takes with regards to regulation of bookmakers, Willows claims, that leads to him having to suffer from some less than complimentary comments on social media from other former addicts, who are not so willing to meet the industry in the middle. Willows says: “We’re trying to do something positive and work with the industry, but for some reason, that makes us a magnet for some social media trolling.

“I understand that if you’ve experienced harm, you may want to say it’s not your fault and you want to blame something else. That is human instinct, but moving forward positively is critical if you are to get your own life back. I have huge empathy for anybody who has experienced harm and hear daily of tragic stories and family breakdowns. I would encourage anybody to reach out for help.

The next target for YGAM is to ensure that education sessions on gambling become part of the PSHE curriculum in the UK. Willows is now based in Maidstone, Kent, approximately 40 miles from the nearest casino.
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