Fermanagh man Byron McNern: ‘I could have gambled all my wages in 15 minutes’

Northern Ireland families who have lost loved ones due to gambling-related suicide and those with gambling addiction are campaigning for dedicated treatment services here and updated legislation. HELEN MCGURK finds out more.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 4:43 pm
Updated Friday, 15th October 2021, 5:12 pm
Enniskillen man Byron McNern is getting help with gambling addiction

Before the first lockdown Byron McNern, 37, sought help for his gambling addiction, which often saw him spend all his wages within hours, maybe even minutes, of getting them.

“I remember getting my wages at 12pm on a Thursday night and I wouldn’t have them by Friday morning. It’s a 15 minute walk home from the supermarket where I work, and sometimes by the time I got to my house they’d be gone.”

The Enniskillen man said he started gambling on arcade fruit machines when he was 15.

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Peter and Sadie Keogh who lost their son, Lewis, to suicide after a gambling addiction.

“When I could get into bookies at 18, I started betting on football, horses and dogs. At the start I went for the social aspect. I have been playing football for 25 years and we would have met outside the bookies before football and went in and done a bet. Then after the football we would have gone back in again. There could have been five or six who went in, did their bets and went home, but I would have been there until they called last bets at 10pm.”

ONLINE GAMBLING

Byron said online gambling was what really fuelled his addiction.

“The roulette wheels and automated betting..... I could sit in the house and do it for 24 hours a day.”

Lewis Keogh took his own life in 2013 due to gambling addiction

The father-of-one said he didn’t get himself into “massive, massive debts”, but said if he had access to more money he would have gambled it.

“The good thing was I didn’t have the option of getting my hands on more money. Your train of thought isn’t where you are getting your money out of, if you have the money you are going to gamble it.

“Sometimes I could have been down £400 and I could have got away with that, but it always catches up with you. You just can’t settle. It was on my mind for a lot of the time. If you lost the money, you wonder how do you get it back. You are just chasing money, it’s not viable, you can never win. I lost my monthly wages several times, I couldn’t count the amount of times.”

GETTING HELP

Byron hid his habit for years from his friends, family and partner of 21 years, Kellie, but after being “consumed” by his addiction, he opened up to a family member.

“She got in touch with Peter Keogh (Gambling with Lives) and I found him to be a great help. I speak to him regularly.

“Betting does affect your mental state. It wasn’t until I started talking to family members about it and then speaking to Peter that I started to feel better getting it out in the open.”

After admitting his problem, Byron feels he’s in a much better place these days, but knows it won’t be plain-sailing.

“I think I am always going to be a gambler. I’m not naive enough to know that people can’t relapse, but personally at the minute I think I’m in a good place, but the thoughts (about gambling) do go through my head daily.”

He added: “I think gambling is far worse than drink and drugs. You can see the physical effect of an alcoholic or a drug addict, but you can’t see that in a gambler. The person beside you could be a gambler and you wouldn’t know.

“You can drink until you can’t drink anymore and you’re going to fall down or take drugs to you get to a certain level, but there’s no limit on gambling. You’ll always find the money somewhere, which I did.”

Byron said he would love to see more services in Northern Ireland to help gamblers.

“When I was trying to get help and exploring the avenues, there was nothing.”

And if an individual is struggling his advice is to be honest and talk to someone.

“If you have good people around you, you will get through it - it’s just one day at a time.”

‘Betting firms are vultures who killed our son’

This time of the year is enormously difficult for Enniskillen couple Peter and Sadie Keogh.

In 2013 their beloved son Lewis, (pictured), the youngest of their three children, took his own life due to gambling addiction. Yesterday would have been Lewis’ birthday, and the anniversary of his death is in two weeks time.

Since their son’s death, the couple have been campaigning for more education around the dangers of gambling and for changes in gambling legislation in NI. They are also actively involved with the charity Gambling with Lives, which helps men and women affected by addiction and offers support to their loved ones.

Peter said: “Gambling addiction has not truly been accepted as a dangerous problem like alcohol and drugs. Although I do think the tide is turning. Two or three years ago it would have been said Lewis died because of his debts. Lewis did not take his life because of his debts, he took his life because addiction is cruel. He couldn’t stop the need to turn on his phone (and gamble). He paid for it (his addiction) with his life.”

Lewis died in Leeds where he worked as a facilities manager and was actively involved with Headingley Football Club.

“Headingley have been magnificent friends to us and a great support. When Lewis died we had to fly to Leeds and we met them in their local pub. Sadie and I in our grief had to comfort 30 young men, of whom at least half a dozen were crying out loud. None of them knew about Lewis’ gambling addiction and that is why we are so passionate about highlighting this hidden illness. Lewis kept it all from us. We weren’t aware of it all.”

Peter said after Lewis’s death his wife Sadie investigated the gambling companies and the banks.

“They are both pariahs - they just threw money at him. They didn’t even check if he had the wherewithal to pay it back.”

Lewis was a VIP with the gambling companies. One flew him to Dublin and put him up in a hotel to play in what they call a poker classic. I find that disgusting. People are just there to be robbed by gambling companies.”

Treatment centre and legislation change

The couple, along with other families bereaved through gambling addiction, have taken their campaign for legislation change to Stormont and Westminster, and have been overwhelmed by the political support.

“The cross-party consensus on this has just been phenomenal,” said Peter. “The main part of the new gambling bill is a mandatory levy. We want to make it a minimum of one per cent (of companies’ annual turnover) and that will go to help treatment and education, highlighting the dangers of gambling.”

Northern Ireland does not have specialist NHS treatment services for problem gamblers, and this is something campaigners would like to see addressed.

“We badly need treatment centres in Northern Ireland. That would be my greatest wish. Yes, we need legislation, we need a gambling ombudsman and we need a gambling commission like they have in England and Wales, but people need treatment. People in every walk of life affected and they don’t know where to go for help. Gambling addiction is more dangerous than alcohol and drugs, it’s rife and it’s a real threat to our young people.”

Peter added: “We are not anti-gambling. There are people who will go and have a few bets and can leave it, but there’s an addictive element in some people and when it gets a grip, and more importantly when the gambling company realises it’s got a grip and they can feed it, they will not stop feeding it. Once they recognise this person is easy prey for more money, they really work hard at making them VIPs and drawing them in and then they spend more and more.”

He added: “These betting companies, who are vultures, have certain algorithms set up so that when they see someone following a pattern they will spot them straight away and they will get offers of a free bet. When we looked at Lewis’ phone there were free bets everywhere and all the enticements.

“I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind who killed our son - the gambling companies who threw money at him through enticements. And every other person in the Gambling with Lives family would say the same thing.”

Education programme

Gambling with Lives has also recently established a schools’ education programme (see above).

Peter said: “My hope for Northern Ireland is that our education programme will get off the ground and have a real meaning. I don’t want to stop gambling at source, I want to stop dangerous gambling,

“Gambling addition is very much is a public health issue, but there really is a stigma and people are so loathe to come out and talk about it.

“It must be regarded the same way as any other illness is regarded. It’s a mental health issue. And people who have got a problem with it must be looked upon as people who are ill, nothing else.”

Get help

*Gambling with Lives can be contacted on 07375 301 955, email: [email protected]

If you are feeling suicidal call 111 or your GP, and in an emergency call 999.

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