Matt Torcasio was an 18-year-old apprentice plumber when he started sinking his weekly pay packet into the pokies, online sports betting and trackside at the horse races. There were some early big wins – a $20 bet that delivered a $2700 jackpot on the pokies and a $6700 winning spree at the races – that added fuel to what would become a destructive seven-year habit.
Occasional gains were gambled away as quickly as they were won and Torcasio’s weekly wage of $350 was no match for his $1000 a week addiction. In all he estimates losing “over $300,000”.
“I borrowed money from close family, from my mother, to buy petrol and food; that was my survival money,” he recalls.
Torcasio was also maxing credit cards and borrowing money from finance companies. What began as a social activity with mates had become his lonely addiction. Within a year he knew he had a serious problem but he lacked the willpower or the support to stop. That changed soon after meeting his girlfriend Lauren Britt.
“When I met Lauren I was 23 and still gambling. I never had any money – we couldn’t go out, I couldn’t buy her presents and I felt bad about it,” he says.
“At first she didn’t realise I had a gambling problem. You become good at telling the odd white lie and hiding things.”
When Lauren finally became aware of the problem – and the huge debt burden Torcasio was carrying – she delivered some tough love in the form of an ultimatum: if he stopped gambling and got help she would stand by him; if not, that was the end of the relationship.
The social cost of gambling
In 2010, the Productivity Commission estimated that there are 160,000 Australians with a serious gambling problem and 360,000 others who are at risk of developing a problem. In most cases the culprit is poker machines: three in four problem gamblers play the pokies.
Serge Sardo, chief executive of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, says “ubiquitous” promotion of online sports betting and mobile technology that makes gambling more accessible 24 hours a day and exposes gamblers to even greater losses are adding to the already serious problems caused by poker machines.
According to the foundation’s data, national expenditure on gambling between 2009 and 2014 grew 10.8 per cent to $21.1 billion.
“The problem with gambling in the digital age is that there are no limits to how much you can gamble – you can place a bet every 10 seconds on your phone and no one is watching you,” Sardo says.
Technology makes it easier for problem gamblers to hide their addiction, but even poker-machine junkies who spend hours at pokies venues can keep their secret for years by “telling lies, covering up, scheming and scamming” as one paper describes it.
The excuses for long absences are only obvious in hindsight: heavy traffic, having to return to the shops for a forgotten item, bumping into a friend and stopping for coffee, having to stay back at work. All the while, family savings are being gambled away, secret credit cards are maxed, finance company and payday lender debts are accruing and, not unusually, a partner discovers that a second mortgage has been taken on the family home.
“Family members can be completely ignorant of the problem. Often family members don’t find out until the bank comes knocking on the door,” Sardo says.
Free professional help is available nationally from government agencies and not-for-profit organisations yet, according to the Australian Psychological Society, only one in 10 problem gamblers seeks counselling and other support services.
It’s not just the gamblers who need help. The Australian Psychological Society estimates that for every person with a gambling problem, five to 10 other people are negatively affected by it.
Recognising that “affected others” are also victims of problem gambling help services have introduced counselling and financial services that target family members.
“Problem gambling puts families in a very vulnerable position; it can lead to divorce and family breakdown, the kids miss out on activities and new clothes, and very often the family home is placed at risk,” Sardo says.
The federal government’s problem gambling website stresses that family members are just as entitled to seek financial counselling as problem gamblers:
“If the person affected by the problem gambling is not open to change, you still have the right to protect your family’s money and assets…talk to your bank about your options.”
Problem gamblers on average lose $21,000 each year. But case studies collected by problem gambling researchers show that windfalls such as redundancy packages or the proceeds from the sale of the family home can result in tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars lost on pokies and online betting.
Tony Clarkson, clinical services manager at Gambler’s Help Southern, which covers Melbourne’s southern metropolitan region, says his service provides 10,000 therapeutic counselling hours a year for 1000 individuals, families and affected others.
He estimates that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the people who access the service’s counsellors are problem gamblers – either individually or with their partner. The rest are family members who are seeking help for themselves.
“It can be a huge relief to have someone to talk to. We provide family members with coping strategies; we help them understand why their loved one is gambling,” Clarkson says
“Often we find that family members blame themselves and we assure them that it’s not their fault. Problem gambling is an illness, a behavioural addiction. It affects families and it needs to be treated from a public health perspective.”
Sydney financial counsellor and Territorial Coordinator of the Salvation Army’s Moneycare program, Tony Devlin, says no matter how precarious someone’s financial situation, there is always a solution.
“Any problem is surmountable. If the person with the gambling problem has a genuine desire to manage their addiction and the family is behind them, it can be done, absolutely,” Devlin says.
After assessing a problem gambler’s assets, income and debt a financial counsellor will provide advice on managing debt and finances and make contact with creditors to set up a payment plan. The counsellor can help relieve family stress by taking on all communication with creditors. In some hardship cases creditors can be persuaded to waive debts. Bankruptcy, says Devlin, is only considered “in very extreme cases”.
However, before the financial counselling can commence, one “very strong criterion” has to be met: the problem gambler must acknowledge their problem and demonstrate that they are taking steps to beat their addiction.
“If not fully committed to the recovery process, things can fall over,” Devlin says.
“It’s important for the financial counsellor to know that the problem gambler is seeking treatment for the addiction before we commence on the financial assistance; otherwise the risk is that there is no long-term benefit for anyone.”
Two years ago, Matt Torcasio contacted the Gambler’s Help service. He signed up for the ‘100 Day Challenge’ program, going 100 consecutive days gambling-free. Weekly sessions with a therapeutic counsellor followed and a financial counsellor helped Torcasio get his finances in order.
Now 29 and working two jobs, Torcasio is following a repayment plan formulated by his financial counsellor. He still owes creditors $30,000 and won’t be debt-free for another two years.
Even so, for the first time in his working life, Torcasio has savings and realisable dreams and he’s never been happier.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that plan. When you have as many debts as I had, it’s very hard to make headway without a plan. Lauren controls the finances and she makes sure I have money for petrol and lunch. That’s all I need,” he says.
“I’ve never had savings before and it’s the best feeling in the world. My main goal is to own a home and start a family.”
Matt and Lauren are getting married in November. But Torcasio won’t be celebrating with a flutter, not even a scratchie. His gambling days are over.
“I never want to be that person again,” he says.
How to spot the signs of problem gambling
Problem gamblers can feel stressed, anxious or depressed when they are losing money and juggling bills. This can result in mood swings and sudden outbursts of anger.
Having to constantly cover up lies and losses can leave problem gamblers feeling isolated and alone. They can become withdrawn from family and friends, give up social activities and sporting interests, lose interest in family events.
Problem gamblers can be absent for long periods or constantly late home without any real excuse. You may sense that they are lying or being evasive when you ask where they have been.
If you are being contacted by creditors, constantly receiving disconnection notices or feel that money is always short for no reason, arrange to see a financial counsellor.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 27 January 2106.