Responsible Gambling Awareness Week in Blacktown: Special report

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

In recovery: Problem gambling counsellor Michelle 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 Blacktown area 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.

Matthew Aherne lost almost $1 million on gambling in 18 years.

"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"

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] Michelle [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 7.5 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."

The bigger picture

CatholicCare Social Services saw more than 300 gambling clients in the Blacktown and Parramatta local government areas — and rising.

"Gambling is, most of the time, a symptom of an underlying issue: boredom, social isolation, or relationship, financial or migrant issues"

"We see 10 new clients every month at the Blacktown office but this month and last month, the numbers definitely are rising," Shaila Kapoor, CatholicCare's gambling help counsellor at Blacktown, said.

"The increased accessibility of online gambling, especially among our youth, is a factor."

CatholicCare have seven part-time gambling and financial counsellors and a manager, who also counsels, available at Blacktown (Tuesday to Friday) and Emerton (Wednesday).

Ms Kapoor sees 20 people over four days each week.

A financial counsellor is also available at Blacktown (Monday-Saturday) and Emerton (Tuesday). After-hours appointments are available at Blacktown on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings.

"Some people have come here after 30 years of gambling; some have taken that step even before the gambling has become a problem," Ms Kapoor said.

"We see people every week for about 10 weeks and then follow up.

"Gambling is, most of the time, a symptom of an underlying issue: boredom, social isolation, or relationship, financial or migrant issues.

"We help them understand what led them to gamble in the first place, to identify the triggers, and how to handle their gambling urges."

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, figures from the Roy Morgan Gambling Monitor say.

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

GET HELP

CatholicCare: 5-59 Allawah Street, Blacktown, is open Tuesday 9am-7pm, Wednesday-Friday 9am-4pm, Thursday 9am-8pm, call 8822 2222; The Holy Family Centre, corner Emert Parade and Webber Crescent, Emerton, is open Wednesday 9am-5pm, call 8822 2222.

Gamblers Anonymous: Meets Wednesday, 10.30am in the Presbyterian Church Room, 14 Marsden Road, St Marys (call Julie, 0404 468 810); meets Thursday, 7.30pm in the Holy Family Centre, 254 Luxford Road, Emerton, (call Laurie, 0433 018 484); or visit http://amgansw.org.au/

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

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