A psychologist warns that South Africans face higher risk of gambling addiction during lockdown. This may be due to the need to escape new harsh realities.

SA gambling addiction
Source: Inês Ferreira on Unsplash

A South African clinical psychologist has warned that reopening casinos could cause some of the country’s more cash-strapped citizens try gambling as a quick solution to their financial troubles. Samukelisiwe Mthembu works at a specialist clinic treating drug addictions, eating disorders and other maladaptive behaviours including gambling addiction.

She asserts that the temptation of an easy fix with a gambling win could threaten family food security, which is already fragile, even further. Fuelled by alcohol, individuals’ inhibitions could be lowered even further causing them to gamble and argue more, potentially escalating into gender-based violence. The behaviour could also be used as a way to act out and avoid the current harsh reality.

New and Escalating Behaviour

Mthembu explains that during the toughest lockdown periods, a marked increase in new online bettors was noticed. Their stakes remained quite small, but 64% of established gamblers increased the amount of time, money or both that they spend gambling. In other words, more people were gambling than ever before, and those who had been doing it before increased their activity.

Mthembu further elaborates that gambling addiction works in the same way as any other addiction does. The addicted individual will go to great lengths to access gambling facilities, just as the alcoholic will do almost anything when craving a drink. The added financial stress that COVID-19 and lockdown measures have imposed is likely to simply increase that.

The newer bettors who started out with relatively small amounts could escalate and start spending more when casinos reopen, and Mthembu also says a rise in illegal gambling operations is not unlikely. Acting out on their compulsive behaviour is also a quick way to induce feelings of pleasure for at least a short time, and this may be followed by shame, which could lead to aggression and violence.

The Cycle of Gambling Addiction

Any financial concerns or difficulties in interpersonal relationships, which have become more common over the pandemic, could cause pathological gamblers (and addicts of any kind) to increase risk-taking behaviour. With so much more stress and so much time being spent at home, Mthembu went on, it would be easier than ever to develop a destructive cycle of gambling, winning, losing and desperation.

As they try to desperately win back their losses and are unable to stop even when they do get the money back, life savings, family relationships and careers are all seriously jeopardised and often sacrificed. When individuals get really desperate, they may even turn to criminal activities in order to fund their habit.

Lockdown Increases Need to “Escape”

Gambling can also be linked to other addictions, of processes (such as shopping addiction or an eating disorder) or substances (such as drugs or alcohol). All of these behaviours cause dopamine to be released in the brain and chasing down that feeling of euphoria to “escape” reality becomes central to the addictive behaviour – especially during this difficult time.

Though gambling addiction is a complex issue that involves emotional, cognitive and physical elements, it can be successfully treated. However, Mthembu notes that this is much more successful in a long-term therapeutic situation. The seeds which might be sown during the desperation of lockdown, or the roots which continue to thrive, could take years to weed out.

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