COVID-19 has upended our lives, causing disruption to virtually everyone. However, as the pandemic continues, its impact on those with mental health challenges is especially significant.

The requirement to maintain social distancing has led to isolation for many, exacting a toll that’s not easy to measure. However, trends from calls to employee assistance programs underscore the impact of the virus: loneliness is increasing among those who are far from their support systems, counseling for grief is on the rise, anxiety regarding work is growing and there are increased calls about substance abuse.

The uncertainty of life during the pandemic, which has often been accompanied by job changes, financial stress and social isolation, has exacerbated individual health risks. Among other destructive tendencies, those with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts may experience an urge to gamble to fill the void. This may be especially true for people in recovery or those with existing symptoms of gambling addiction.

For some, gambling may also be seen as a way to make money given financial pressures they may be experiencing from COVID. But it’s important to remember that in the long run, only the “house” is sure to win. Money used to pay for food, housing, utilities and other necessities of daily living should never be used for gambling.

Given that many casinos and other gambling venues may be operating at reduced capacity — and because many people are choosing to stay at home to reduce their risk of contracting COVID — many gamblers are choosing to gamble online. This can be done anywhere and at any time of day through either a computer or a phone. Online gambling also provides an all-too-easy opportunity to escape one’s problems, which are more prevalent in today’s uncertain times.

Risks of Gambling Online

There are several risks associated with online gambling. First, it is easier for gamblers to hide the extent and frequency of their gambling. In contrast to gambling that’s done at brick-and-mortar venues, there’s no personnel available to check on a gamblers’ well-being or to at least invite them to take breaks. It’s also possible that individuals gambling from home may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or struggling with other mental health conditions, either of which can result in bad judgment and betting beyond capabilities.

Sports Betting and Online Gambling: A Potentially Volatile Mix

Although sporting events have been somewhat curtailed during the pandemic, the rapid expansion of sports gambling means there are ever more opportunities to wager on sports. The rate of gambling problems among sports bettors is at least twice as high as among gamblers in general. When sports gambling is conducted online, the rate of problems is even higher, with one study of online sports gamblers indicating that 16% met clinical criteria for gambling disorder while another 13% showed some signs of gambling problems.

Online Gaming

Online gaming consists of any video game that offers online interactions with other players. Its popularity has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Online gaming, similar to sports and online gambling, may become an addiction to some seeking to numb the pain and stress produced by COVID-19.

Tools to Control Online Gambling

Some people who gamble online find it difficult to adhere to a money or time limit. For those seeking to control or even eliminate their online gambling, there are tools and resources that can help. Rather than rely on willpower to silence the urge to gamble, apps can be used to schedule gambling time or automatically prevent people from gambling online, a practice known as self exclusion.

One such app is Gamban, which gives users the ability to exclude themselves from thousands of online gambling sites on up to 15 household devices. Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance (NPGA) offers individual Gamban subscriptions at no cost to any Minnesota resident. Please email sst@northstarpg.org and a link will be provided to set up the account.

Treatment is Available at No Cost in Minnesota

In Minnesota, treatment for gambling disorder is available at no cost. A list of state-approved gambling treatment providers can be found here. Treatment is also available for families (up to 12 hours/year) at no cost.

Expansion of Tele-therapy

To ensure that those seeking help for a gambling addiction can access it given today’s social distancing requirements, counseling is now available from the comfort of one’s home. This type of remote counseling, known as “telehealth,” is provided through phone or online platforms.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

Whether someone is gambling online, with friends and coworkers, or at brick-and-mortar establishments, it’s important to keep the signs of gambling addiction in mind. Gambling problems can be subtle in nature. Knowing these signs can help you identify someone who is at risk for compulsive gambling.

Most importantly, those suffering from gambling disorders, as well as those who have a friend or loved one who can’t escape the urge to gamble, should know that help is available for gambling addiction — and that it works.

For more information about problem gambling in Minnesota, please visit northstarpg.org.