Illustration: Mike Lemanski

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones OBE has dedicated her life to understanding and preventing addictive behaviour, and says the best part of her work is being able to make a real difference.

Graphic: A head with dice cupped in two handsMy very first role model was Lucy, a character in the Charlie Brown Peanuts cartoons who takes it upon herself to ensure the wellbeing of others sharing her life in the playground. When I saw her standing with the sign saying, ‘Psychiatric Help, 5 cents,’ I wanted to sit behind that booth.

Today, that desire to help is as strong as ever, and I’m now juggling around 30 simultaneous projects, mostly covering research and clinical work around gambling disorder and gaming disorder addiction. The behavioural addictions field is one that I first became fascinated with during my medical doctorate work. Then, in 2008, I opened the National Problem Gambling Clinic, the UK’s first, and currently only, NHS national clinic for gambling addiction.

Initially no one expected it to be busy, but we’ve been inundated since we opened. There are now half a million confirmed problem gamblers across the country but only 8,800 people in treatment. The new NHS five-year plan will be announced soon and I am hopeful that an expansion of services will be addressed.

It’s also been a most rewarding experience for me, understanding an illness from a neuroscience perspective and then translating that into clinical work. The best thing about the job is the ability to make a difference, not just at an individual level but at a population level, by working on projects that emphasise the right strategies to reduce harm.

My need to keep up to date is constant: as addictions evolve, we have to understand what people are finding compulsive, what new products are harmful and how we can tailor our treatment. When I started, people were gambling in bookmakers, now nearly everyone is online and the financial harms they are experiencing are different. Every week something happens to surprise me. For most of the population, new technological advances are great, but my patients are going to find a way of harming themselves, so I need to try at every turn to counteract things that can be harmful to the most vulnerable.

I feel my duty now is also at a preventive level, sharing information about important issues: what can we do to block things that are harmful? Our current focus is on advertising, making sure decision makers understand why we feel it is harmful for young people to see gambling adverts. We are also focusing on new technological advances, what banks can do to stop people wasting money on gambling and what we can do to protect young people.

On a very serious note, problem gambling is a significant cause of suicidal ideation and intent in young people, so we need to understand who’s doing it and whether some types of gambling are more likely to cause people to become suicidal than others. We need to have this conversation at a higher level nationally, so the next year is all about these big issues. We will be busy!

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones OBE (MD Neuroscience and Mental Health 2005) is director and founder of the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London. She is Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial and is the current President of the Medical Women’s Federation.