COVID-19 could exacerbate problem gambling

March was Problem Gambling Awareness Month. At least it was supposed to be. The month-long campaign understandably took a back burner to a more pressing public health issue—the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, the two are not unrelated. Recovery advocates believe COVID-19 has the potential to worsen problem gambling and could even create new problem gamblers.

Also known as compulsive gambling, gambling addiction and gambling disorder, problem gambling is characterized by an obsession with gambling and an inability to stop despite negative consequences. It can result in the loss of money, career, relationships and reputation, and can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) estimates that as many as 10 million Americans struggle with their gambling behavior, costing the government $7 billion per year.

Groups dedicated to raising awareness of this issue organized events throughout March at locations across the country—events that were scrapped as states issued ever-stricter social distancing guidelines. The health cost of essentially cancelling Problem Gambling Awareness Month in the U.S. is immeasurable. In the wake of the cancellations, healthcare agencies and recovery advocates scrambled to get vital information to vulnerable individuals and mental health professionals.

According to the American Gaming Association, 95 percent of commercial casinos in the country have closed their doors, including Everett’s Encore Boston Resort. Horse and greyhound racing has been shut down and major sporting events cancelled. One would think this would equal a reduction in gambling. But just like Americans found ways to drink during Prohibition, compulsive gamblers are finding ways to place bets.

In past weeks, online gambling has exploded. Casino-style games like slot machines and poker have upped their advertising, hoping to lure in homebound bettors. These games can be highly addictive. Online gambling isn’t subject to the same spending limits as in-person gambling venues and players can spend thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes without any oversight.

Social isolation fuels addictions of all kinds, and gambling addiction is no exception. More Americans find themselves at home on the internet than ever and those who already frequented the rooms of online casinos may be drawn there with greater regularity now that going to the gym and visiting with friends is no longer possible.

While it may seem counterintuitive, a report in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that Americans gamble more, not less, during times of financial trouble. An increasing number of Americans have lost their jobs and some will turn to gambling to make ends meet. For many, placing a bet or two will be a one-time attempt to pad their wallets while waiting for their stimulus checks. For others, it could set in motion a spiral of destructive behavior.

A national crisis always highlights the weakest points of our social fabric. But Americans have a long history of overcoming adversity and, as the saying goes, emerging “stronger at the broken places.” As gambling moves online, so too have mental health professionals. Many counselors are now offering remote video sessions with clients. The NCPG website even has a database of counselors specializing in gambling addiction (ncpgambling.org/help-treatment/).

Helpful Resources:

-National Council on Problem Gambling: ncpgambling.org
-Mass Council on Compulsive Gambling masscompulsivegambling.org
-Massachusetts Gaming Commission: massgaming.com
-Gamblers Anonymous: gamblersanonymous.org
-GamTalk.org
-Gam-anon.org
-National Council on Problem Gambling confidential helpline: 1-800-522-4700.

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