The coronavirus pandemic has not only had a devastating effect on people’s health, it has also had a major impact on economies around the world

On Tuesday, Statistics South Africa released a report which showed that the country’s unemployment rate had hit a record high. There were 7,1 million people without jobs in the first quarter, up from 6,7 million in the previous quarter, Statistics South Africa said.

The unemployment rate of 30,1 percent was up from 29,1 percent in the final quarter of last year, Statistics South Africa said in its quarterly labour force survey.

“This is the first (time) ever that we have hit the 30 percent mark,” Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke said.

Thousands of citizens have been laid off, or are on ‘short time’ due to the pandemic, which may lead to them resorting to desperate and reckless measures to try to boost their income.

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One of the concerns raised by health professionals is the potential increase in problem gambling.

Casinos to reopen soon

Caption:  Samukelisiwe Mthembu, Clinical Psychologist, at Riverview Manor and ChooseLife SA

With the re-opening of casinos imminent and online gambling booming, the risk of cash strapped people turning to gamble for a rapid solution to their money woes is significant.

Samukelisiwe Mthembu, Clinical Psychologist at Riverview Manor, a specialist clinic that deals with everything from eating disorders to gambling and drug addictions, warns that this could threaten already tentative family food security and, when fuelled by alcohol, increase arguments that can spiral into gender-based violence.

She notes that while it is still too early to predict the impact of lockdown, followed by the easing of gambling restrictions in South Africa, research released by the UK Gambling Association was cause for concern.

Increase in new online gamblers

During the toughest periods of lockdown, there was a marked increase in the number of new betters online, although the size of bets remained small. However, when it came to engaged gamblers, 64% increased either the amount of time or the money spent gambling. Almost one in eight saw online gambling sessions lasting for over an hour.

This could indicate an increase in new gamblers as well as increased intensity amongst established gamblers. Many could become or already are addicted to gambling, she says.

Gambling addiction

The South African Responsible Gambling Foundation (SARGF) says about three percent of South Africans can be classified as problem gamblers with 0,5 percent being classified as pathological gamblers. The latter has an impulse control disorder that leads them to gamble uncontrollably which leads to significant damage to themselves and others.

Gambling as an addiction works like any other addiction such as alcohol use disorder. Thus, in the same way, as individuals went to great lengths to access alcohol and cigarettes during lockdown, risky gambling is no different. With the added financial strain of COVID19, illegal gambling may also be increased.

Destructive cycles

According to Mthembu, pathological gamblers develop a cycle of winning, losing and desperation and their compulsive behaviour as they try to unsuccessfully win back their losses often destroys family relationships, causes job losses and leads to criminal activity to feed their habit.

Mthembu notes that compulsive gamblers are likely to increase their activities during adversity.

Mthembu notes that compulsive gamblers are likely to increase their activities during adversity.

“If they are struggling with interpersonal relationships, grief, low self-worth, a financial crisis such as one sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic or any mental illness, they may increase their risk-taking behaviour,” she says.

She says that gambling can stimulate the brain’s reward system in a similar way to drugs or alcohol

“The rewards centre reinforces the behaviour. For example, when a child does well in school, the teacher rewards the child with a gold star. Then, after five gold stars, the child gets a treat. This may then motivate the child to continue with this good behaviour. When a compulsive gambler gambles and wins, the rewards centre releases an organic chemical called dopamine. Dopamine functions as a ‘feel-good’ generator thus bringing about feelings of euphoria or pleasurable relaxedness.

“While substances (psychoactive drugs) directly alter the dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain, activities such as gambling, shopping and watching porn cause a chain reaction in the pleasure centre that leads to the release of dopamine. This contributes to obsessive thinking about the object or behaviour of the addiction and the feeling that one doesn’t have control,” she explains.

Addiction also involves the process of learning, memory and recollection

Once someone can remember how they experienced a behaviour or substance (euphoric high state or relaxedness), it becomes ingrained. A person with a gambling disorder will continue to play after many loses because they will keep reminding themselves of the times they won and the feeling this bought about.

Gambling is also interlinked with other mental illnesses such as bipolar mood disorder, depression, anxiety, poor impulse control

According to Mthembu, an individual with a gambling disorder: 

  • Gains very little entertainment or enjoyment from gambling but rather a sense of relief.
  • Develops an unhealthy obsession with gambling and thus feels obliged to gamble.
  • Takes risks to continue gambling: i.e. selling their car, stealing, selling themselves, taking out a loan.
  • Has a sense of not having control when wanting to gamble or whilst gambling.
  • Can no longer function adequately in interpersonal relationships (with partners, family or employers).
  • Isolates themselves to gamble.
  • Loses great sums of money or time regardless of affording or not affording to gamble.
  • Will omit information or directly lie about their gambling.

Those who are most at risk usually have a family history of gambling.

Gambling is also interlinked with other mental illnesses such as bipolar mood disorder, depression, anxiety, poor impulse control (such as borderline personality disorder) as well as addictions to other substances and pathological behaviours.

Mthembu says that, although compulsive gambling can be treated, the process is challenging and is best handled through long term therapy rather than a short-term approach which has a poor success rate.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.