Gambling Associated with March Madness Could Be Different during the COVID-19 Pandemic

March Is Problem Gambling Awareness Month

March 5, 2021

MERCERVILLE - Every March, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) holds its Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, which is known as March Madness. During March, there are 67 college basketball games that are divided into four regions and organized into an elimination bracket that pre-determines when a team wins a game, which team they will compete against next to advance in order to compete in the national championship. It is one of the most popular annual sporting events in the United States and is televised on multiple TV channels throughout the month. It is also common for people to predict the outcomes of each game. There are also high-stakes bracket pools that people can participate in, even if they do not typically gamble. Media outlets, such as ESPN, CBS Sports and Fox Sports, host online tournaments during which contestants can participate for free. This can perpetuate an environment that is conducive to gambling and risky behavior. According to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (CCGNJ), a member of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA), 47 million Americans gambled during March Madness in 2019 and approximately $8.5 billion were wagered.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, March Madness was canceled in 2020 and it is resuming this month. The attitude towards gambling surrounding March Madness could also be different. Many individuals are experiencing stress, sadness and loneliness during the pandemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation states that four in 10 adults reported experiencing anxiety or depression in July 2020. The stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic can result in increased substance use. People with a substance use disorder may also be hesitant to seek in-person treatment due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Both mental health and substance use disorders can impact people's attitudes towards gambling.

CCGNJ defines disordered gambling as a progressive addiction characterized by a person experiencing increasing preoccupation with gambling, betting money more frequently, losing control as shown by continuing to gamble regardless of the consequences and becoming irritable when attempting to stop gambling. When a gambler experiences prolonged loss, it can cause or exacerbate depression. A person who has anxiety can use gambling as a coping mechanism. CCGNJ states that roughly 50 percent of individuals with problem gambling had a substance use disorder and 30 percent of people in treatment for a substance use disorder also had a gambling addiction. The increased rates of mental illness and substance use can impact disordered gambling.

"A significant number of people have lost their jobs or have experienced a decrease in wages during the COVID-19 pandemic. If individuals are experiencing gambling disorder, is in a precarious financial situation and frequently gambles during sporting events, such as March Madness, it would not only have an impact on their finances, but also on their mental health. It could also result in increased substance use if a person has a co-occurring disorder. It is important that healthcare providers screen for gambling problems while screening for mental illness and substance use disorders. A provider can then provide integrated treatment or a person can be referred to professionals who specialize in disordered gambling," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of NJAMHAA.

In addition to March Madness, March is also Problem Gambling Awareness Month, which is a campaign that aims to increase public awareness of problem gambling, as well as the availability of prevention, treatment and recovery services. The campaign also encourages healthcare providers to screen clients for disordered gambling. The theme this year is "Awareness + Action". Governor Phil Murphy has issued a Proclamation that declares March 2021 Problem Gambling Awareness Month in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Lottery announced that it will be working with CCGNJ to educate both healthcare providers and individuals about the warning signs of disordered gambling. Click here to watch a video from the New Jersey Lottery and CCGNJ to learn more about its "Dream Big. Play Responsibly." campaign.

The National Council on Problem Gambling has shared examples of and ideas for organizations that would like to host events for Problem Gambling Month, which can be accessed here.


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