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COVID-19: Problematic gambling could worsen



Appropriate care

A particularly complicating factor of the pandemic is how it has disrupted traditional ways of seeking health care, particularly with how much mental health and other medical care has shifted to telehealth and online delivery, Dr. Potenza pointed out.

“This is a change for many people, and it’s important for both caretakers and people in treatment to be mindful of this and to try to ensure that appropriate services are maintained for people during this time,” he said.

For example, 12-step programs traditionally meet in person, which is largely impossible during the pandemic. Some have moved meetings online, and other programs have turned to apps, such as the Addiction Policy Forum’s app Connections, an empirically validated digital therapy platform that lets patients and clinicians remain connected with remote check-ins.

The move to more telehealth may actually increase access, suggested Dr. Hodgins.

“There is no evidence that this is less effective, and in fact, its convenience might be an advantage in reaching more people,” he said. “More challenging is offering group therapies remotely, but this is also feasible.”

The treatment with the strongest evidence remains cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Dr. Hodgins said.

“This therapy, in part, helps people become aware of their erroneous cognitions and to challenge them, but also helps people restructure their activities to change their habits,” he said. He also noted the rise of online therapy, whether supported by a therapist or entirely self-directed, such as Gambling Self-help.

“These programs typically provide cognitive behavior content but also content that comes from studying how people recover from gambling problems,” he said. “The challenge of completely self-directed approaches is follow-through. Like most online content, people tend to flit around more than they might in therapy.” Still, he added, research has shown good outcomes from these programs.

Dr. Potenza also noted that several organizations, including the International Society of Addiction Medicine and Children and Screens, have been hosting webinars related to COVID-19 coping and/or addiction that clinicians and patients might find helpful.

Identification of problematic behaviors

One challenge in watching for problematic gambling behaviors during the pandemic is the set of unusual living circumstances for most people right now. At almost no other time in history have people been primarily confined to their homes, many unable to go to work or working from home, with extra leisure time and nowhere to go.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of daily life has changed,” Dr. Potenza said. “It’s unclear whether certain behaviors that have become habitual during the pandemic, such as gaming or online gambling, will then interfere with daily life when the pandemic subsides.”

“The problem is, a small proportion of people who are very vulnerable will develop a disorder and might maintain it,” Dr. Kraus said. Those who already struggle with mental health and may be out of work have greater potential for problematic behaviors.

Dr. Potenza collaborated with other psychiatrists in drafting consensus guidelines on maintaining healthy use of the Internet specifically during the pandemic (Compr Psychiatry. 2020 Jul. doi: 10.10161/comppsych.2020.152180).

“It’s important to think about where one draws the line between normative everyday behaviors – behaviors that are not interfering with life functioning – and those that do interfere with life functioning,” Dr. Potenza said. “If someone is having difficulty making work or family or school obligations, these are important signs that the behavior may be problematic.”

He offered suggestions for things people can do to promote their health during the pandemic, such as having regular routines that include getting physical exercise and social interaction, dining with family if isolating together, and making time for self-care. He also recommended setting limits on the use of digital devices and aiming for a healthy balance in keeping up with the news. The idea is to stay aware of what’s happening without getting burned out or traumatized by news coverage.


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