May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and while many of us worked from home, or dealt with significant life changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, more than ever, it was an opportunity for people to think about the impact that a lack of social connectivity could have on individuals' mental health.

Jenna Hotaling, who serves as team leader for the Finger Lakes Problem Gambling Resource Center, said the pandemic has created some challenges for those dealing with problem gambling.

It is a problem that is under-reported and tracked, like many other challenges in the mental health space. Hotaling said feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety are at all-time highs.

Hotaling said the data shows an issue worthy of people's attention, especially as casinos and racetracks were shut down for months at the start of the pandemic. Nearly 668,000 New Yorkers have experienced a gambling problem in the last year. It accounts for nearly five percent of the population. She said beyond the data, other mental health challenges are often connected to problem gambling. A study she cited found that around 66 percent of those who struggled with problem gambling had other mental health disorders.

For the Problem Gambling Resource Center, the pandemic meant a transition to all-digital work. "So originally, you know, we had the in-person services to refer clients to counselors [who] are specifically trained to help them with problem gambling, but now everything's transitioned to fully remote," she explained. "So if someone calls you looking for help, then we can in turn kind of give them over to someone that is fully trained to do remote therapy, teletherapy, tele counseling."

She called problem gambling a “hidden addiction.” "So a lot of people don't realize that it can become a problem. And there are some warning signs to look out for. But mainly just being absent from normal family activities could be a warning sign because they're preoccupied with gambling," Hotaling explained. She said that as the name describes, problem gambling occurs when the act of gambling or placing bets interferes with basic life.

"It could be financial troubles, it could be relationship struggles, it could be work-related issues, but really, it not only impacts the person affected by problem gambling, but loved ones, too," she added. 

The agency is focused on ensuring people understand that problem gambling and other mental health issues are frequently connected or related. "So when you see someone that has a gambling problem, chances are they are also impacted by a mental health issue. That could be increased stress, it could be increased for depression, anxiety, mood disorder, and ultimately, a lot of problem gamblers do fantasize about suicide," Hotaling continued. She said the suicide rate among problem gamblers is higher than all addictions, which is something that has been a major point of education for the community-at-large.

"Problem gambling really can become a serious issue for some folks," she said. "We are really trying to connect with our communities just by showing that there is a correlation between other addictions, with mental health issues, and trying to show visible data and statistics on what's going on locally, as well as nationally." 

Because of the extended impact that problem gambling can have on those who are in the circles of those with the gambling problem, the broader issue impacts millions, Hotaling said. 

The agency remains available 24/7 to help those impacted by problem gambling. They offer an array of referral services and can act as a sounding board for those who feel like they are unsure about different aspects of problem gambling.

March was Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and also was the same month that Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down casinos across New York State as the coronavirus pandemic grew. Many of those facilities are looking at ways to reopen this summer.

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