One aspect of the pandemic and the lockdowns that have remained under scrutiny is its impact on mental health. As more people report feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression, there is increased concern about the well-being of individuals and communities at large.
Along with the challenges in mental health that many people are experiencing, there has been a rise in gambling addictions. To better understand the impact of the pandemic on gambling in the UK, we look at the connection between the lockdowns, mental health, and the rise in problem gambling.
What is Gambling Addiction?
Gambling addiction, otherwise known as gambling disorder or problem gambling, is an addictive behaviour that involves the continued participation in gambling activities despite the negative consequences it has on personal life, family life, and professional life.
Online gambling has increased exponentially because it is more readily accessible compared to land-based gambling activities. It is also an activity that can be performed in isolation making it a highly addictive practice.
During the pandemic, individuals who frequented the commercial gambling facilities moved towards online gambling, with many using internet gambling programmes for the first time. Another concern of online gambling is the opportunity for individuals to increase their activity with the more time spent at home that places them at risk of problem gambling.
The Impact of the Lockdown on Mental Health
In March 2020, the UK issued its first lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. As restrictions were only eased towards the end of June, the influence and the impact of the lockdown on the mental health of children, adults, and families cannot be denied. The combination of isolation, concerns over future employment, and COVID itself have created higher levels of anxiety, tension, and depression. Some of the changes in mental health have also influenced everyday habits or behaviours with a rise in addictions.
The lockdown meant that regular access to substances or activities used to cope with challenges was no longer available. The burden on the healthcare system trying to manage COVID-19 cases also meant that psychological services and supportive resources were harder to access. Individuals with gambling addiction or related behaviours, experienced an exacerbation of stress and anxiety partly because of the isolation from the lockdown and the absence of professional support.
Other factors that have further impacted mental health include boredom, fear of the pandemic itself, and of the future concerning job and financial security.
Why Has Gambling Increased During the Lockdowns and the Pandemic?
Stress, anxiety, and depression have long been associated with gambling behaviours from adolescence into adulthood. Research has shown that the internalisation of depressive symptoms creates social withdrawal and a higher likelihood of pursuing pathological gambling.
For people who may have gambled before the onset of the lockdown, remaining in isolation, coupled with higher levels of anxiety and depression have set the stage for gambling and addictive behaviours as a means to escape psychological difficulties. Many have also pursued gambling activities in a bid to win money and improve their financial security. This is because of employment uncertainty during lockdown including an end to Furlough. Gambling behaviours were also considered rife as the opening of stock trading accounts increased within the first 4 months of the lockdown (Current Opinion in Psychiatry).
During the initial lockdown, commercial gambling was inaccessible including casinos, betting shops, gambling machines among others. During this time, more people, including those who gambled before the pandemic, turned to online gambling. Upon the reopening of some venues, land-based commercial gambling declined while online gambling activity increased (Current Opinion in Psychiatry).
Online gambling includes internet-based slot machines, poker rooms, Blackjack, and lottery tickets. Reports have shown that the pandemic promoted online gambling as a leisure activity; however, for those with addictive behaviours or who may have gambled infrequently, their gambling activity has increased with a negative impact on their lives and that of their family.
What are the Effects of Gambling on the Individual and Their Family?
In a time where families are already affected by the financial and emotional uncertainties because of the lockdown and pandemic, gambling addiction creates harmful consequences that affect both present and future well-being.
Impaired relationships because of the isolated nature of gambling, financial difficulties, and emotional turmoil affect both gamblers and their families. Gambling addiction is considered a progressive disease that has also left many feeling despondent, hopeless, and suicidal.
Pathological gambling is largely associated with depression but is also known to carry emotional and psychological comorbidities. It has a negative impact on individuals, their relationships, and communities. For individuals to improve their mental well-being, treatment for gambling addiction (rehabilitation) and coping with emotional irregularities should be sought.
During the pandemic, the anxiety, stress, and depression associated with financial and employment uncertainties have increased the desire to pursue gambling activities. Many have sought gambling to escape the emotional challenges of dealing with the lockdown and the mental constraints that have become apparent during the pandemic. While people have been at risk of developing gambling addiction, there is also the risk of relapse among those who are recovering from gambling disorders.
Another aspect that must be considered in gambling addiction is the continued access to online gambling. This makes it harder for individuals to remove themselves from potential triggers as gambling programmes can be accessed by desktop, mobile, or other internet-enabled devices.
Studies have shown that gambling is used as a means to escape negative thoughts and emotions such as depression; however, it is the presence of mental health issues that leads to and maintains pathological gambling. Depression is one of the most common psychological conditions among gamblers which negatively affects emotional stability, relationships, and physical health. The lockdown because of the pandemic, has created higher levels of anxiousness, depression, and stress, it has inadvertently pushed people to participate in gambling activities and has increased their risk of developing gambling addiction. As the lockdowns are eased and we move into the reopening of services and activities, only time will tell the real impact that the lockdown has had on mental health and addiction.
COVID-19 is possibly going to be us for some time and as the pandemic continues to create fear, uncertainty, and insecurity, the risk of gambling addiction and its harmful effects on individuals and their families remains rife.
Written by Rida Sheppard