The real number of gambling-related suicides could be a lot higher than B.C. authorities believe, according to experts and national estimates – and the personal experience of a recovering gambling addict who stared down the barrel of his own gun.

John Pennie told CTV News he thought about killing himself after he hit bottom. He thinks the official tally should be higher because he knows people who have committed suicide over gambling and authorities may never have connected the dots.

“If the real numbers were out there, people would panic. People would be shocked,” Pennie said. “Unless you leave a note saying ‘I’m killing myself because I owe $300,000,’ they’re not going to look into it.”

The B.C. Coroners Service determined that gambling was a factor in 18 suicides over a four-year time period, according to documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation. The death toll includes a Richmond murder-suicide and a Victoria man who is believed to have stolen $368,000 from a local soccer club.

But experts say the real number could be six times the number provided by the Coroners Service.

“The true rates are many multiples higher than the official rates,” said Dr. Robert Williams, a research coordinator for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute.

“What they’re doing is a conservative approach. The coroners only link gambling to suicides with unambiguous evidence, usually a suicide note. The public needs to know the figures need to be taken with a big dose of salt.”

Another estimate, from the Canada Safety Council, estimates there are 200 gambling-related suicides across the country. Adjusted for population, that would imply there are about 28 in B.C. – more than two per month.

It’s an important figure because it could be an indication of the social cost North Vancouver, Delta, Saanich and Victoria could expect if they take up an offer from the B.C. Lottery Corporation to expand casinos. At stake is millions in gambling revenue for those communities.

“I will vote looking at the bigger picture and how it will benefit the city of Victoria,” said Margaret Lucas, a Victoria city councilor.

BCLC says it has programs to help gamblers, including a help line, gambling counsellors and the self-exclusion program, where gamblers can promise not to enter casinos.

But the NDP’s gambling critic, David Eby, told CTV those programs aren’t good enough and government needs to step up its efforts to help addicts.

“They’re dependent on this revenue and they’re reluctant to address these issues,” he said.

Pennie is recovering from his addiction, but said he wants government officials to take his story, and the stories of gamblers like him, into account. B.C. statistics suggest there are some 31,000 problem gamblers. About 6,000 gamblers have registered with the B.C. Lottery Corporation’s programs.

He said he started gambling in the early 1990s with bets on the Vancouver Canucks. But soon he turned to casinos and found the lights and the suspense thrilling.

“It just took off. I basically had no control,” he said.

He believes he lost more than $1 million in 20 years of gambling. He took money meant for taxes, food and diapers for his children and spent it at the casino. That pushed his first wife away.

He married again, but couldn’t stop gambling. He pushed his second wife and children away, and retreated to another home in Abbotsford where serious depression stopped him from leaving his house. He didn’t eat or drink for days at a time, and didn’t answer the phone.

“Imagine going to bed every night and hoping a god you didn’t believe in will take your life while you sleep. And when you wake up you cry because you are still alive,” he said.

“I put a bullet in a chamber of a gun once and I contemplated,” he said.

But Pennie said he never followed through. He credits his wife, who never gave up on him, and that he still loved his children and wanted to be there for them.

“I felt that if I pulled that trigger that would be the ultimate destruction of my kids and my wife. And I couldn’t do it,” he said.

“Whatever you think of your life, they are my children and I couldn’t do that to them. That’s when I allowed my wife to help and I allowed the doctors to help.”

He called the province’s gambling hotline, and connected with a gambling counsellor. He joined Gambling Anonymous, which connected him with others facing similar struggles. Eventually he was treated for depression in Fraser Health. The last time he gambled was May 2013.

Pennie kept a stack of bills for the money that he owed, and when he finally paid them this year, he shredded them all. And he wants gamblers to know that they are not alone.

“There are people who can help,” he said.