Problem gambling during the coronavirus pandemic and how to seek support

Statistics are showing an increase in online gambling during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people try to entertain themselves, de-stress and manage anxiety. If you’re negatively affected by gambling, it’s important to know what to do and where to turn to for help.

Many people who are at home for extended periods are looking to escape the boredom and monotony. For some, that may mean turning to online gambling, whether they are new to it, taking it up again after a break, or using it to manage their urges if they would normally visit venues to gamble.

“Some gambling certainly appears to have increased, which is unsurprising,” says Dr Charles Livingstone, a gambling researcher and head of the Gambling and Social Determinants unit within Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

“Stress is a risk factor for gambling, and life under COVID-19 is of itself stressful for many and may also exacerbate difficulties associated with relationship issues, making ends meet and the prospect, if not the reality, of unemployment and loss of income.”

But turning to gambling as a way to de-stress may easily backfire. On top of the fact that gambling doesn’t always work to relieve stress, online gambling is high-risk: it’s easy to lose a lot of money quickly. This in turn can generate additional stress and cause your wellbeing to suffer.

Are you at risk?

“Anyone can be caught up in a gambling problem,” says Dr Livingstone. “However, those with a stressful life situation – whether related to mental health issues, loneliness, relationship difficulties, poverty and other stressors – are likely to find relief in habitual gambling. This can lead to addictive behaviour, which can aggravate existing circumstances.”

Recognising whether your gambling is a problem can be a valuable step in making decisions about what to do next, and there are self-assessment tools you can use, but Dr Livingstone says the following signs may be an indication:

  • You can’t stop thinking about gambling.
  • You’re spending increasing amounts of time and/or money on it.
  • You’re restless and anxious when you’re not gambling, but find that gambling makes you feel calm and relaxed.
  • Relatives or friends are suggesting you may have a problem.
  • You’re drawing on money that’s needed for household necessities or you’re using credit cards to finance your gambling.
  • You want to stop gambling but find it hard to do.

What you can do

  1. Inform yourself. Taking the time to understand gambling, including the impacts it can have, why and how it can get out of control and the role urges play, is a good place to start.

    There are even self-help programs, developed by professional addiction clinicians, which you can complete at your own pace if you feel overwhelmed or apprehensive about sharing your situation with someone else.
  2. Protect your finances. Online gambling can make it harder to keep track of how much you’ve spent, particularly if you’re using a credit card to top up your account.

    There can be a temptation to use credit to chase your losses or to pay off debts you may have as a result of gambling or other financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including reduced income or job loss.

    If you are experiencing financial hardship, Financial Counselling Australia coordinates the National Debt Helpline, which provides a range of resources and offers free financial counselling to help you get your finances back on track.
  3. Look after your mental health. Evidence tells us there’s a strong link between gambling and poor mental health.

    People with a gambling problem are twice as likely to be depressed than people without a gambling problem, and are at significantly higher risk of experiencing psychological distress. It can also work the other way: depression may lead someone to gamble in the first place.

    Anxiety and gambling are also connected, with research suggesting that some people use gambling as a temporary way of relieving anxiety. However, it’s often a vicious cycle – as gambling progresses and if it becomes a problem, it can increase feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
  4. Seek support. Anyone negatively affected by their gambling is strongly encouraged to seek support.

    “Many people find themselves getting into difficulties gambling, and if you decide you’d like to discuss this, there are services available that are free and confidential,” says Dr Livingstone. “Even if you simply want to work out how much of a problem gambling might be for you, they can assist.”

    Support services are available in every Australian state and territory and you can find them via Gambling Help Online, a national service that also offers counselling, extensive information and support 24/7 (1800 858 858).

    People who struggle with problem gambling often also struggle with problem drinking, which can affect your decision-making ability. If this is the case for you, it may also be worth considering whether there have been changes to your drinking during the coronavirus pandemic.

    If it feels like things are getting out of control, for immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

    If there is immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, always call triple zero (000).

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