Spike in calls to gambling helpline as coronavirus keeps people home

Gambling addiction helpline sees rise in calls amid coronavirus indoor blues

A gambling addiction helpline for Maltese and English-speaking gamblers is experiencing a rise in the number of calls for assistance, as more people are forced to stay indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The helpline was set up in mid-February this year – a month before Malta registered its first COVID-19 case – by Gluecksfall, an association which focuses on protecting gamblers from the dangers of addiction.

Gluecksfall consultant and social worker Melissa McElhatton told MaltaToday that, with casinos closed following government measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, online gaming sites were becoming more popular.

“With the closure of land-based casinos, we are already seeing a spike in registrations for online gambling websites. With the current campaigns for people to stay home, individuals are getting bored at inside and they look to the internet for entertainment,” McElhatton said.

“This is not in itself problematic – the issue lies with the current tension and anxiety which is palpable in society, which then increases the risk of problematic gambling.”

She said the helpline, run by professionals to provide problematic gamblers and their loved ones support, is receiving more calls from people reaching out for advice.

“All crisis helplines and chat services operating locally are seeing an increase in contacts, and we are experiencing this in our service as well. We currently only operate once a week, but with the current demand we may need to expand our services to accommodate more people in need,” she said.

Gluecksfall took the decision to open a helpline for gamblers in Malta following the success of a similar service the organisation operates in Germany.

“Gluecksfall’s mission statement has always been to reduce the period of suffering for individuals experiencing a gambling problem, and their loved ones. We had already set up a successful helpline in Germany, for German and Turkish speakers, and we felt that we could use this experience to launch another helpline in Malta, which would target Maltese and English-speaking individuals, with operators who are warranted professionals and who also have varied experience in the field of addiction,” McElhatton said.

Asked whether Malta plays a part in the gambling problem, due to the country’s remote-gaming rules and its industry, McElhatton said awareness on addiction was increasing locally, but that more could be done to better protect players.

“In Malta, we are more sensitised towards problematic gambling, which is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, there is a lot that we can still do with regards to implementing measures and protocols to safeguard players. However, this is something which the Malta Gaming Authority focuses heavily on and can tell us more about.”

Since one of the helpline’s characteristics is for callers to remain anonymous, information on those contacting it cannot reach external support networks, such as social workers. So callers are presented with an action plan during their call, to help them take the next steps in dealing with their problem.

“The helpline is fully anonymous and confidential, two of its main cornerstones… we support the caller in creating a plan of action, with one of the main focuses being external support which the individual can access – and one of the suggestions is, in fact, social workers and other forms of therapeutic support,” McElhatton says.

The first evidence of gambling dates to between 3,000-4,000BC in Egypt – archaeologists found symbols on papyrus in Egypt showing gambling was used even then. McElhatton says that addiction research shows it is not just accessibility which leads to an addiction. “There are also environmental and biological factors which come into play.”