Responsible Gambling Awareness Week in The Hills: Special report

In recovery: Problem gambling counsellor Michele Zavaglia with Matthew Aherne. Picture: Natalie Roberts

In recovery: Problem gambling counsellor Michele Zavaglia with Matthew Aherne. Picture: Natalie Roberts

This week is Responsible Gambling Awareness Week. It may surprise you to know a typical gambling client in The Hills areas is a woman aged in her late 40s, who has experienced a trauma, such as divorce or losing a parent. The men are 18, don’t make friends easily and are going to the pub to have a punt and appear ‘‘normal’’. ISABELL PETRINIC reports.

THE number of clients seen by a Hills and Hawkesbury gambling counselling service has doubled to 300 over the past year.

Michele Zavaglia, the problem gambling counsellor at St Vincent de Paul Gambling Help, said the majority of those were men.

The service opened an office in Baulkham Hills on Monday.

"The number constantly keeps increasing, with online gambling definitely on the increase, particularly among young people," she said.

At Gambling Help, counsellors help clients understand what led them to gamble in the first place, to identify the triggers and how to handle their gambling urges.

"We also chat to the family member about whether they're enabling their partner," Ms Zavaglia said. "Gambling is, most of the time, a symptom of an underlying issue: loneliness, boredom and a disconnect from self and others."

She said people needed to understand the house would always win.

"For every $1 that goes through a poker machine in a club, 87 cents goes back to the floor, so sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

"As the disease gets more progressive, they win and then they'll sit there until it's gone.

"By that stage they'll rob Peter to pay Paul.

"They will take out personal loans, credit cards, and it's only when they can't manage the budget any more that they'll come clean."

In Australia, although heavy gamblers make up only 20 per cent of the country's gamblers, they account for almost 90 per cent of the total annual gambling spend of $16.3 billion, say the March 2014 results from the Roy Morgan Gambling Monitor.

Funding for counselling services comes predominantly from the NSW Responsible Gambling Fund.

Recovering compulsive gambler Matthew Aherne tells his story

Baulkham Hills Gambling Help client Matthew Aherne lost almost $1 million on gambling in 18 years.

He destroyed four significant relationships, was stopped from seeing his two sons after threatening to take his own life, and lost his job.

But he didn't stop gambling until he ended up in hospital.

It's a date firmly etched in his memory: October 4, 2013.

That was the day doctors diagnosed Mr Aherne with acute severe depression and placed him on antidepressants.

"I started seeing [problem gambling counsellor] Michele [Zavaglia] two weeks later," he said.

Through bi-weekly counselling sessions he has learnt to deal with the death of his sister 19 years ago.

Ms Zavaglia said trauma was predominantly a trigger for gambling.

In Mr Aherne's case, it was all forms of gambling — pokies, horses, sports, online, over-the-counter in pubs and clubs.

"I remember winning $20,000 from $1000 in about five hours one night online; in about an hour-and-a-half I had lost $19,000 of it," Mr Aherne said.

"Sometimes within an hour of being paid I'd gone to the club and lost it.

"When I stopped gambling I stopped watching sport and going into pubs and clubs to remove myself from any triggers."

He says he remembers getting his first taste of gambling on visits to the horse races with his dad as a 17-year-old.

"My father never bet over his head;

I was the opposite: I couldn't control it.

"For a long time my mother blamed my dad. I never did. I'm now at 7½ months of no gambling.

"I'm seeing my children twice a week, rebuilding my relationship with my partner to whom I'm forever grateful for standing by me [and] I am back in gainful employment in financial services."

Getting help

St Vincent de Paul Society: 15/35 Old Northern Road, Baulkham Hills, Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm, call 96861281 or 40323543.

CatholicCare: Suite 23, 7-9 Bardwell Avenue, Castle Hill, Monday and Friday (for gambling counselling) and Wednesday and Thursday (financial counselling),  call 88222222.

Gamblers Anonymous: Meets Monday 7pm, Kellyville Anglican Church rooms, 45 President Road, Kellyville; Monday 8pm, Salvation Army, 29-31Burdett Street, Hornsby; or visit amgansw.org.au/.

Lifeline: 24-hour crisis telephone line: 13 11 14.

Mayor opens new Vinnies facility to kick off Responsible Gambling Awareness Week (May 26 to June 1)

The opening of the new St Vincent de Paul facility on Old Northern Rd, Baulkham Hills, has been welcomed by The Hills mayor Michelle Byrne.

Click here to read more.

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