COVID-19: Problematic Gambling Could Worsen

Tara Haelle

June 03, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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.

"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."

Gambling Online: Easy, Available

The authors note that past research has identified increased gambling problems during economic crises in other countries.

"While currently speculative, financial hardships may promote gambling as individuals may be motivated to gamble to try to win money," the authors suggested. "Although presently limited, existing data suggest that COVID-19–related financial concerns may increase gambling-related harms, and this possibility merits systematic research."

But trends and characteristics of the gambling market, including direct effects from the pandemic, can potentially influence behaviors, too. Most casinos have closed during the pandemic, and most of the sports that people bet on have been canceled or postponed.

"Fewer people are gambling on sports, but they turn then to other areas," Dr. Potenza said. "If they can't bet on major league type sports, they might gamble on more local sporting events, or they may bet on other activities going on in society during the pandemic."

But online gambling poses greater risk.

"Properties of online gambling may constitute a particular health hazard when many people are confined to their homes and have had rapid changes in working conditions, psychosocial stress, anxiety, and depression, as has been described in China," the paper's authors wrote. "Online gambling may be particularly concerning due to its availability and velocity" and association with higher debt levels.

In addition to online gaming's ease and availability, past research has found patients report boredom and escapism as reasons they turned to it.

Again, boredom on its own is not necessarily a problem, but for those who already struggle with addictive behaviors, it can be a trigger, Dr. Kraus said.

"Boredom is very tough for them because it's often associated with negative emotions," such as dwelling on things not going well in their lives, he said. "In a pandemic, people are by themselves quite a bit, socially isolated, so for those who are struggling already with some depression or anxiety, it's only going to be increased."

Online gaming trends may vary with demographics, however. Dr. Kraus noted that his former clinic at the Veterans Administration has been seeing lower gambling in patients with addictive disorders, but those patients are also older and primarily frequented casinos.

"It's going to depend on age and familiarity with technology," he said, but even if older problem gamblers are not going to the Internet now, "let's wait and see what happens in the next 2 or 3 months."

The authors noted results from a small survey of patients in treatment for gambling addiction at the Bellvitge University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, where two of the coauthors work. They conducted telephone surveys with 26 patients about the first 4 weeks of sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. All but four of the patients were male, and their average age was 45 years.

"Most presented worries about increased uncertainties, such as the negative impact on their work, risk of COVID-19 infection of themselves or their loved ones and their treatment," the authors reported.

Although 19% were completely abstinent, an additional 12% (n = 3) reported worsened gambling. In addition, almost half (46%) reported anxiety symptoms and more than a quarter (27%) had depressive symptoms.

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.

Guidance for Clinicians

An urgent need for research and guidelines related to gambling and the pandemic exists, the authors argued.

In the meantime, aside from various validated screeners available, Dr. Kraus offered some practical advice for clinicians checking in with their patients: "Ask your patients what they have been doing to cope with this difficult time."

Some might mention their faith, family, or friends, and others might not have an answer or mention drinking, gaming, or engaging in other activities. "We all do things to cope. Sometimes you use healthy coping and sometimes you use unhealthy coping," Dr. Kraus said. "I would have a dialogue with my patients around, 'How are you getting through? What's helping you? What are some things you've tried that are tripping you up?' "

If gambling in particular is a possible concern, he encouraged clinicians to ask their patients whether they have tried to quit or what would happen if they stopped gambling.

"What we'd expect is the problem gamblers will have more irritability, crankiness, difficulty with quitting," he said.

Dr. Hodgins agreed that checking in on how patients' lives and activities have changed, and their emotion reactions to those changes, is prudent.

"The change in activities might be healthy or might include increased addictive behaviors, including increased use of substances, gaming, pornography, food, and gambling," he said.

In addition, the paper authors list several examples of guidelines that might be considered in drafting guidance for clinicians, including the following:

  • Limiting the extent of gambling

  • Not gambling to regulate negative emotions

  • Not gambling in order to try to solve financial problems or financial concerns

  • Not gambling under the influence of alcohol or drugs

  • Carefully monitoring gambling-related time and financial expenditures

  • Maintaining and establishing daily routines involving activities other than gambling

  • Minding gambling-related attitudes and behaviors in the presence of minors

  • Not starting to gamble because of stressors

The research did not receive external funding. Dr. Håkansson has received research funding from the Swedish Sport Foundation, the Swedish alcohol monopoly Systembolaget, and the Swedish state-owned gambling operator AB Svenska Spel. He is working with the company Kontigo Care on devices for gambling addiction follow-up care. Dr. Potenza has received consulting or advisory compensation from several entities, including the Addiction Policy Forum, AXA Gaming, Idorsia, Opiant, and RiverMend Health. Dr. Potenza has received research funding from Mohegan Sun casino and the National Center for Responsible Gaming. No other authors or outside sources had industry-related disclosures.

SOURCE: Håkansson A et al. J Addict Med. 2020 May 18. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000690.

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