Cash-strapped South Africans could become gambling addicts: expert

25 June 2020 - 07:00 By Nomahlubi Jordaan
A clinical psychologist says with the imminent opening of casinos, cash-strapped South Africans are likely turn to gambling for a quick fix to their financial problems.
A clinical psychologist says with the imminent opening of casinos, cash-strapped South Africans are likely turn to gambling for a quick fix to their financial problems.
Image: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO

A clinical psychologist has warned that the opening of casinos could see cash-strapped people turning to gambling for a quick solution to their money woes.

Samukelisiwe Mthembu, who works at a specialist clinic dealing with eating disorders, gambling and drug addictions, among others, says gambling could threaten the already tentative food security of families.

When fuelled by alcohol, gambling could increase arguments that could spiral into gender-based violence, she added.

“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,” said Mthembu.

This, she said, could indicate an increase in new gamblers, as well as increased intensity among established gamblers.

“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 Covid-19, illegal gambling may also be increased.”

Compulsive gamblers are likely to increase their activities during times of adversity, she said.

“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.”

In the same way as individuals went to great lengths to access alcohol and cigarettes during lockdown, risky gambling is no different.
Samukelisiwe Mthembu

Pathological gamblers, she said, developed a cycle of winning, losing and desperation. This compulsive behaviour as they try unsuccessfully to win back their losses often destroys family relationships, causes job losses and leads to criminal activity to feed their habit.

“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.”

Addiction also involves a process of learning, memory and recollection, she added.

“Once someone can remember how they experienced a behaviour or substance  - such as a 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.”

A person with a gambling disorder, according to Mthembu, is likely to do the following:

  • 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, such as selling their car, stealing, selling themselves or taking out a loan;
  • has a sense of not having control when wanting to gamble or while 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 whether or not he or she can afford to gamble; and
  • often omits information or directly lies about their 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," she said.

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


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