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COVID-19: Problematic gambling could worsen



The confluence of isolation, excess available time, and anxiety about illness or finances as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to increase problem gambling behaviors during this public health emergency, so it’s essential to gather data and supply guidance on this issue, according to a call to action published May 18 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

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“When facing an unforeseen situation with confinement, fear of disease, and financial uncertainty for the future, problem gambling may be an important health hazard to monitor and prevent during and following the COVID-19 crisis, especially given current online gambling availability,” wrote Anders Håkansson, PhD, of Lund University in Sweden and coauthors.

Both stress and trauma have been linked to gambling problems, and both are occurring during the pandemic, said coauthor Marc N. Potenza, MD, PhD, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., in an interview.

“People are likely to be experiencing stress at levels they haven’t experienced previously,” Dr. Potenza said. While multiple factors can contribute to addictive behaviors, “with respect to the pandemic, one concern is that so-called negative reinforcement motivations – engaging in an addictive behavior to escape from depressed or negative mood states – may be a driving motivation for a significant number of people during this time,” he said.

David Hodgins, PhD, CPsych, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, who was not involved with the commentary, noted that gambling relapse is triggered by “negative emotional states, interpersonal stress, and financial stress” – all three of which the pandemic contributes to.

Financial stress can especially “inflame erroneous gambling-related cognitions,” he said in an interview, including “beliefs such as the idea that gambling can solve financial problems, even when this is statistically almost impossible as debt increases, and that debt has been caused by gambling.”

Increased social isolation also is particularly problematic, pointed out Shane W. Kraus, PhD, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Kraus also was not involved with the paper.

“If someone is already struggling with already negative emotions, negative feelings, thoughts, and depression, and you’re now isolating them quite a bit, that’s not going to be a recipe for success,” Dr. Kraus said in an interview.

The mental health effects of the pandemic could be extensive and long-lasting, and such effects often co-occur with addictive behaviors, Dr. Potenza said.

“We should be mindful of ways in which people develop addictions in these settings,” he said. “One of the aspects of the pandemic is that many people are at home for longer periods of time, and they use digital technologies more frequently.”

The use of digital technologies can include interaction on social media platforms and on meeting applications such as Zoom, but such use also offers opportunities for problematic gambling, gaming, and pornography use. The World Health Organization recognizes addiction disorders for gambling and for gaming, and online gaming platforms and pornography sites have reported substantial increases in their traffic during the pandemic, Dr. Potenza said.

The increase in frequency is unsurprising and not necessarily a concern by itself, Dr. Kraus said.

“It’s all about loss of control or difficulty engaging or disengaging,” Dr. Kraus said. “When you can’t stop doing something even if you like it or love it, when it interferes with your day-to-day activities and relationships, that’s when it’s a problem.”


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