Long winding road to ruin

A gambling addiction can be bad enough, but combined with Covid clusters amid lockdowns, what was once 'fun' can be devastating

Public health officials from Bang Bua Thong Hospital test suspected gamblers for Covid-19 in Nonthaburi province mid this month. NUTTHAWAT WICHEANBUT

For 28-year-old Bank*, gambling -- once a pastime he enjoyed with friends -- was never meant to interfere with his priorities in life which mainly centred on raising a happy family and propelling his budding career at a start-up company to greater heights. The adrenaline-pumping excitement which came with winning his first lottery, where he pocketed 3,000 baht, began a chain of events that led to him being hooked to other forms of gambling within the first year of his marriage.

The strong urge to visit illegal gambling dens after work put an enormous strain on both his marriage and career; his bosses were on the verge of firing him because his work performance had hit rock bottom.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Thailand last year, Bank's addiction to gambling caused him to lose his job, and his wife asked him for a divorce after watching him sneak away during the lockdown to gamble the little earnings she was able to save.

Forced to move in with his parents after he was not able to pay the mortgage for his house, he began to experiment with drugs at private gatherings for punters at the height of the pandemic.

His inability to control his gambling habit made him vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus, which he eventually did. Bank finally realised, while laid-up in hospital, the enormous impact his addiction had had on his life -- he sought psychiatric help.

It is no secret Thais love to gamble, and the fact that many are addicted comes as no surprise. The question is, just how much of an impact has this had during the pandemic?

The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) reported that during the second wave of Covid-19 cases, from last Dec 15 to Jan 13, gambling dens in the eastern region of Thailand attributed to the highest rise in daily case numbers, at one point reaching 702 infected patients.

Police news reports also mentioned rampant illegal gambling taking place in various districts of Rayong province, despite the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak in the coastal province.

"I do not seriously believe that the pandemic has necessarily increased the number of people gambling, or for that matter gambling disorders," said psychiatrist Dr Apichat Jariyavilas. "What I believe is that gambling is an issue in Thai society. The lockdown that was meant to keep people at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus did not work on people with this disorder because, for one, they experienced restlessness or irritability during the lockdown which for them meant trying to cut down or stop gambling.

"As with any addict, it is about getting their fix, and so these patients can readily overlook the health hazards of leaving one's home during a pandemic. We found that the clusters with the greatest spread were in gambling dens. While it is anyone's guess just how many suffer from gambling disorders, what further exacerbates this social problem is that accompanied by alcohol and drugs, the person can develop a host of other emotional issues, one of which is suicidal tendencies."

Gambling, said Apichat, is one of the most insidious of human vices, as it presents the illusion of easy money yet can quickly lead to financial ruin. Many people, are drawn into it because it is often a diverse fun activity in the beginning. Unlike other addictions, it is not always obvious when someone is addicted to gambling.

He said contrary to popular belief, the act of gambling is not limited to slot machines, poker and blackjack, but also purchasing a lottery ticket, entering a raffle or making a bet with a friend, which are also forms of gambling that people do often for leisure.

"People most susceptible to gambling disorders are often found to have been brought up in an environment where gambling is considered to be a normal practice, so as adults they don't give a second thought to stopping up until they find themselves in a bind or have loved ones bring it to their attention," Apichat said.

"It becomes a gambling disorder when it entails repeated problematic gambling behaviour that creates significant trouble or distress. We can also term it as gambling addiction or compulsive gambling. It was found that gambling addiction has effects that are similar to people with alcoholism. Such individuals seek to indulge in gambling in the same manner a person desires alcohol or other substances. Of course, as we have often seen, compulsive gambling does eventually cause people to have financial, relationship and work problems.

"Another common behaviour found in such patients is that they often hide their behaviour. Lying to conceal gambling activity from family members and close acquaintances can then possibly lead to turning to others for support with financial problems. Some punters seek excitement or action in gambling, while others are searching more for an escape."

The psychiatrist said that while gambling disorders have a tendency to run in families, a huge part also has to do with the environmental factors the person has been raised in. On symptoms of the disorder, he said that they could commence as early as adolescence. In terms of gender, he added that men are more likely to start at a younger age while women generally begin their habit later in life.

In cases of severe addictions, he said that it can take hold when the individual feels desperate financially and desires to win back what has been lost. Even after winning some money back, he said, it is rare that it is enough to cover what has already been lost.

Apichat encouraged families and friends of people who find themselves under the bondage of gambling to support them in seeking professional help. "Positive enforcement from loved ones goes a long way," he said, "while we realise the importance of seeking treatment and the fact that the road to recovery can be time-consuming."


* not his real name

HOW TO SPOT A PROBLEM GAMBLER

  • Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
  • Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling
  • Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop gambling
  • Is often preoccupied with gambling (for example, having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble)
  • Often gambles when feeling distressed
  • After losing money gambling often returns another day to "get even" ("chasing" one's losses)
  • Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling
  • Has jeopardised or lost a significant relationship, job or educational or career opportunity because of gambling
  • Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling

For counselling and more information on gambling disorders, call the Mental Health Hotline 1323.

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