YGAM was founded by Lee Willows, following his own struggles with gambling.
Lee has worked predominantly in the Third & Education Sectors for over 25 years, progressing from a front-line youth worker and teacher to holding senior level Director and Chief Executive positions.
Lee has led the work of complex national charities and is hugely committed to and passionate about young people and education. Working at the top of his game, Lee was raising significant amounts of money for charities and had a good network of influential stakeholders and friends.
However, in late 2012 he developed a short, but devastating gambling addiction, which turned his life upside down. Lee became addicted to gambling on video gaming machines (categorised as B1 machines by the UK Gambling Commission).
When Lee was gambling on these machines, they had a £2.00 maximum stake and a jackpot of £4,000. Now such machines have a £5.00 maximum stake and £10,000 jackpot – or up to £20,000 if linked as a progressive jackpot.
Lee gambled away significant amounts of money, spending a lifetime’s worth of savings, took on huge debt (via bank loans & pay day loans) and even stole money to feed his gambling addiction, when he could no longer get money legally. The need to gamble for Lee was overpowering and he could not stop, despite the damage he knew he was causing.
Lee says, "I would be gambling six maybe seven days a week, sometimes before work, sometimes after work and on most weekends. I would often spend several hours gambling and when I won, I could not just walk out. I lost the value of money and saw any winnings as the opportunity to ‘stay in the game’ and would not have to worry about taking on another loan or similar. Indeed I had won the jackpot on a number of occasions, but I felt no joy or excitement, other than the need to return the next day.
My behaviour was completely irrational and when I did try to stop, I would get huge mood swings, heart palpitations and even cold sweats. Such symptoms are more associated with substance addictions, but now, thankfully, more and more evidence is being produced to link the psychological effects of behavioural and substance addictions."
Lee comes from a very good family background and when he told people that he had a gambling addiction and the mess he had got himself into in order to feed the addiction, everybody was truly shocked and did not know what to do.
Lee says, "If you are addicted to a substance, you go and see your doctor and get help. But try explaining to people that you are addicted to a behaviour, and a behaviour that in my case almost drove me to commit suicide. The day before I told my family and close friends about my addiction, I was heading to Heathrow airport to take a flight to Asia, where I was going to commit suicide on a remote beach. I love travelling and wanted to find, what in my mind, would be the perfect place to end my life.
The fact that I had stolen money and lied in order to feed my addiction was despicable and unforgivable. I had never committed a crime, not even as a child and I was thoroughly ashamed of what I had done and the person I had become. I am a northerner and my parents had brought me up with good principles and a good moral purpose. How could I have let them and myself down so badly? The need to punish myself was at the forefront of my mind, my self-respect and dignity had all gone."
Fortunately Lee did tell his parents & loved ones what he had done; he reached out for help, filed for bankruptcy and informed the police of the crime he had committed. Treatment for Lee was provided by the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic and he also used the telephone support services of GamCare, both funded by the Responsible Gambling Trust. The combination of this treatment and help, plus support from his parents and partner is the only reason why Lee is still here today.
He says, "My gambling addiction had taken me from being at the top of my game to being inside a prison cell. I am heartbroken by what I did and all the people I let down. It is precisely those feelings that drove me to plan my suicide; feelings that will stay with me forever. I received a suspended prison sentence for the crime I committed to fuel my addiction and I am utterly ashamed of the person I became. I have not spoken publically about my addiction, as it is a time in my life I would rather forget; the pain I caused myself and many others will never leave me. The help provided by the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic and GamCare were instrumental in my path to recovery and their help changed my life. As a person, I have changed enormously and would rather use the experience over the past few years in a positive way, going forward. Charities are often founded by people whom have had life-changing experiences, YGAM is no exception. The fact is that preventative education around gambling-related harm is virtually non-existent, especially for young people and especially when compared with the amount of information available for other risky activities, including sexual health and drinking alcohol. Gambling is legalised in the UK and so, like alcohol or safe sex education for example, young people need to know about the potential risks and how to stay safe, so they can make informed choices. I have huge empathy with all people suffering from this addiction and would encourage anybody who is worried about their gambling, or the gambling of a friend or partner to reach out for help. There absolutely is life after a gambling addiction, but it does not come easily. If the work of YGAM can encourage more young people to find out further information, or if they feel they or their friends are experiencing harm, they may come forward for help sooner and less damage will be done to those who are affected. I am delighted and incredibly proud to be working with the education, gambling and health sectors to move the work of YGAM forward. We need to shine a light on gambling addictions, create awareness, remove the stigma and minimise harm. I believe the most effective way we can do this is through working with like-minded partners and our YGAM supporters to deliver a quality-assured & accredited programme that schools and other educational organisations see the value in. In addition, I believe programmes need to be delivered as part of a PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) programme and not as a standalone subject.
Finally, those who deliver such programmes directly to young people need high impact, high quality, quality-assured teaching / training materials. I am hugely grateful to our amazing staff, volunteers and ambassadors who drive the work of YGAM forward; the overwhelming number of whom give their time voluntarily to our cause."