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An insight into Gambling Minds


Photo supplied by Dr Rebecca Hope

by Dr Rebecca Hope

One overwhelming thing that COVID has shown us is that we all have this basic human need to connect with others. We’re all vulnerable without it.

The Gambling Minds mental health triage service has had an increase in people presenting for the first time with anxiety and depression throughout COVID restrictions. People are also presenting with their first episode of bipolar or psychosis, so not only is the lack of connection placing a huge amount of stress on people but how do you connect and find help for the first time?

We know that on the severe end, there’s a clear increase in people using substances such as alcohol and cannabis while they’re gambling, while cannabis use in that situation is up 50 per cent, and alcohol use is up 40 per cent. People really are looking for ways to cope.

Gambling and mental illness intertwined

Mental illness and gambling are not separate conditions to treat individually; they’re all intertwined. What we’ve seen with COVID is people using gambling to soothe stress or to get away. We’ve seen the reduction in electronic gaming (EGMs/pokies) use with the closure of venues leave people vulnerable because it was one of their primary coping strategies for dealing with distress.

With the shift from EGMs, we’ve seen an increase of up to 70 per cent in online gambling. This is a real phenomenon of COVID with online accessibility and people gambling by themselves late at night. A recent Canadian study carried out during COVID restrictions found that online gamblers have eight times the risk of being a high-risk gambler compared to those not gambling online, with young men most at risk.

Anxiety and COVID-19

Looking further at the complex interplay between gambling and mental health issues, one of the clear things that’s come out of COVID is the increase in rates of anxiety and, even more so, of depression in people who have gambling difficulties. Entwined with that is the increase in substance use both when people are, and are not, gambling. That means they’re more disinhibited while being disconnected from people around them who might be able to help or give them some reality testing.

And what are the factors that promote online gambling through restrictions? The Canadian study tells us that being negatively financially affected by COVID, particularly losing employment or having your hours reduced, is one of the biggest risk factors. There’s the loss of self-worth and the isolation, but there’s also the characteristic that’s unique to a gambling addiction – the chasing of losses. Unlike someone with a methamphetamine or alcohol addiction, there’s the belief that the next gamble is going to fix all their problems rather than make them worse.

It’s a vicious cycle in the COVID context: with financial difficulties or loss of income is the sense of needing to gamble again to win money. That’s been found to be the most common reason to gamble during COVID.

People stuck in this cycle can become desperate, and we know that gambling dependence is associated with an increased risk of suicide. It’s an unusual phenomenon during a global or external disaster that the rates of suicide might temporarily decline then, subsequent to the crisis, the rates may increase. Australian suicide rates during COVID don’t appear to have changed that much, but I don’t think it’s reflective of the population’s subjective distress.

The importance of connection

So how do we help? A safe connection is paramount. People are often reluctant to talk to their families and even health professionals about their gambling, so lived experience and peer support gambling services are amazing ways to connect.

As we come out of lockdown, people who are disconnected are vulnerable. Some people who haven’t been able to gamble on EGMs might assume they’re ‘cured’, but it’s important to safeguard that vulnerability and protect any savings they had during COVID. Neurologically, once those pathways of addiction in the brain are set up, that vulnerability is long lasting.

In the support services sector, it’s important to educate, to connect early with our clients and see them more frequently. Talk to them about the risk of relapse and refer them to mental health services if they are having symptoms. Particularly for those with a history of trauma, this will increase adaptive coping strategies, build resilience and improve self-awareness.

Talk, share and support – connection is our greatest strength.