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COVID-19 Outbreak Forms Perfect Storm During Problem Gambling Awareness Month

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there have been more postponements, cancellations, and shutdowns in March than can probably be counted. Problem Gambling Awareness Month wasn’t among those, though.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, resources are available for those seeking help with problem gambling. (Image: Cathy Yeulet/123RF.com)

Elizabeth Thielen’s calendar was jam-packed with speaking engagements to discuss the topic at conferences and other events. Crowd restrictions put in place by governments to control the spread of COVID-19 eliminated those by the second week of this month, Thielen, Senior Director of Substance Abuse Treatment Services at Nicasa Behavioral Health Services in Illinois, told Casino.org.

Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is now hosting daily phone-in sessions for those whose in-person meetings have been cancelled, Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told Casino.org.

What’s happening right now can perhaps best be described as a perfect storm for those with gambling issues.

Those not in treatment and seeking a fix are may find it hard to find right now. The American Gaming Association (AGA) noted Thursday that 95 percent of the commercial casinos in the country and more than three-quarters of the tribal venues have closed. The cancellations and suspensions in the sports world have left sportsbooks, both the licensed ones and the unregulated offshore ones, scrambling to find markets to offer their customers.

Meanwhile, those in treatment may face challenges in accessing their support system, whether it’s an in-person GA meeting or meeting with a counselor at an outpatient clinic.

And there are those who now find themselves staying at home because of a job loss or being told to telecommute or self-isolate. They may now be looking for an outlet to channel the stress they’re enduring.

“When you’re playing to run away from something, it’s a bigger risk factor then when you’re playing for something,” Whyte said.

Those are just some of the problem gaming scenarios being played out across the country and in other parts of the world right now. The consequences for all those scenarios can be dire.

Forced Withdrawal May Cause Problems

Just as someone who is alcohol-dependent may suffer from delirium tremens if their access to alcohol is cut off abruptly, those with problem gaming issues may face similar problems.

“It isn’t a physiological withdrawal, though some people can actually… become restless or irritable,” said Thielen, a certified problem and compulsive gambling counselor. “They may even be shaky, sweaty because anxiety causes those symptoms.”

Sports bettors, she said, typically are action-focused and get an adrenaline rush from gambling. They may not exhibit physical symptoms of withdrawal, but they can show mood swings as a result.

That’s a big concern, because gambling-disordered people have an extremely high rate of suicide, more so than other addictive disorders,” Thielen told Casino.org. “When you think about somebody like a sports bettor, and let’s say a poker player, a blackjack player who is abruptly ceasing, and they were somebody who played frequently and intensely, that can lead to a really huge dramatic shift in their mood, which could actually be potentially life-threatening for them if their mood plummets to that degree.”

Even those who still have an outlet to gamble during the coronavirus pandemic face challenges as well, Whyte said.

With the NCAA Tournament canceled and most major professional sports around the world suspended because of the virus, sportsbooks have reached out to state regulators, asking them to approve new markets, including table tennis and darts. Some are pushing for chess. Offshore outlets are touting opportunities to bet on the weather or financial markets.

“The longer this stretches, there’s a danger people are going to start betting sports, or betting on stuff that they have no idea about or information about, just because they want to get action down,” Whyte told Casino.org. “There’s always that risk. Boredom, loneliness, and isolation are risk factors for gaming problems. So you can even have a guy that’s a stone cold, great pro player, who if he’s bored, lonely, and isolated, what was previously recreational may now turn into problematic betting.”

COVID-19 May Create New Problem Gamblers

Not only has COVID-19 created a lot of social anxiety in the country, it’s also created a tremendous amount of economic uncertainty. Stock markets have plummeted. Unemployment will likely skyrocket as companies in gaming, manufacturing, and retail businesses furlough or lay off workers.

With gambling, the solution can be found in the next bet, and therein lies the problem.

While the economy may cause some to look to gambling as an outlet, relying on it to solve financial distress is not a healthy strategy, Thielen told Casino.org.

That’s one of the things that we are concerned about,” she said. “We always want to increase public awareness of problem gambling, but we (also) want to raise awareness about responsible gambling. Because you could have people who have the ability to do that, but don’t know how. So they gamble in an unhealthy way because they don’t know what’s the right way to do it.”

“COVID-19 is affecting our ability to reach out to the people who don’t have a problem, but who could develop one if they don’t know how to do it right. And they don’t know the risks involved.”

Resources Still Available

Both Whyte and Thielen stressed there are resources available now for those who want help dealing with their gambling issue during the coronavirus pandemic.

The NCPG web site offers a list of resources for those seeking help. That includes a toll-free hotline and an online chat room.

GamTalk offers online support, including a live chatroom, as well as a place to read and post stories about recovery efforts.

Gamblers Anonymous offers hotlines where people can find out information about upcoming meetings. There are also daily teleconferences taking place from 9-11 p.m. ET for individuals who cannot attend in-person meetings due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nicasa Behavioral Health Services offers free counseling for gamblers, including by phone or video, and those who receive services there can receive a free one-year subscription to Gamban. While the Illinois-based center can help anyone in the country, because of limited resources, they do look to connect people to local resources when available.

The most important thing for people to realize, Thielen told Casino.org, is there’s always hope.

“No matter how bad it’s gotten, you can stop it right now,” she said. “You can get help right now, and it can get better. It’s a matter of not continuing to chase those losses and dig that hole deeper. But no matter how deep that hole got, you stop digging and we can slowly fill it in. You’re not alone because there’s tons of people out there dealing with this and helping each other to deal with it.”

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