Matt Zarb-Cousin discusses Support for Problem Gamblers

Posted 10th of June 2022 by Bay Whitaker

Matt Zarb-Cousin is an activist, entrepreneur and recovering gambling addict.  While still in his 20s he successfully campaigned to have the legal maximum for fixed odd betting terminals (FOBTs) reduced from £100 to £2, and has continued to work with charities and NHS services to help problem gamblers and addicts.

Bay: Hi Matt, a lot of people will not understand what Fixed Odds Betting Terminals are and why the reduction in maximum bets is important - can you explain in laymen's terms?

Matt: They are gaming machines in betting shops that used to offer roulette at spins of up to £100 every 20 seconds. Around half of all who engaged with the machines showed moderate to severe signs of gambling addiction. Thankfully, as a result of campaigning and pressure from politicians such as Tracey Crouch and Carolyn Harris, the maximum stake has been reduced to £2 a spin

Bay: Gambling figures for those under 18 are on the rise, and you are very open about your previous addiction to gambling as a teenager.  Could you tell us a little about what drew you into this activity, and how it became a problem.

Matt: I first went into a betting shop to put a bet on an Arsenal match, but found roulette on the FOBTs and was almost immediately hooked. I had a big win early on which distorted my expectations and perceptions of gambling considerably, an experience which ultimately meant I rationalised loss chasing in the future. This had disastrous consequences in terms of my personal finances, my mental health and my self esteem as well a severe and measurable impact on educational attainment

Bay: I have read somewhere that as well as overcoming gambling addiction, you subsequently had mental health problems - what helped you through this period of your life?

Matt: Recovery doesn’t stop when gambling stops, unfortunately. There were a lot of residual mental health issues I had to deal with, stemming from my addiction. These included increased anxiety, some symptoms of paranoia and mood swings that mirrored the highs and lows of gambling. It wasn’t until I was 26 and working in a highly stressful political role that I started taking Sertraline and this has helped me hugely. I now feel how I remember feeling before I gambled

Bay:As with many industries, smart phones and tablets have transformed the way people access gambllng.  You are involved with gamban, which is designed to help protect those who gamble online - can you tell us what your hopes are for this approach?

Matt: Gamban is software that blocks access to gambling sites and apps, both regulated and unregulated, on a user’s devices. We have recently added crypto exchanges and trading platforms to our blocklist, which is growing every day as new gambling sites emerge. The software is designed to be as difficult to remove as possible, and as much as various operating systems allow. We will continue to improve the product as we look for partners that will enable our software to be offered free at the point of use to people suffering gambling harm.

In the UK we have entered into something called TalkBanStop with GamCare and GAMSTOP, which recommends a layered approach to recovery: blocking software, self exclusion and treatment through the National Gambling Helpline where Gamban licenses can be redeemed for free. Gamban is also offered for free by Norsk Tipping, Norway’s state monopoly gambling operator. We hope to enter into similar arrangements in other jurisdictions where online gambling harms are on the rise. But ultimately we hope a product like ours eventually won’t have to exist because adequate regulations will be in place to prevent gambling harm.

Bay: Thank you so much for this information Matt.  We appreciate how open you have been about your own struggles.  There is a lot of shame among problem gamblers, and I know that hearing people's authentic stories is truly valuable, not just for those in trouble with gambling, but for their families and loved ones as well.

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