Katie Tarrant is currently studying an MA in Investigative Journalism at City University of London, frequently covering discrimination, education and mental health. Katie has been writing for three years previously wrote for the University of Warwicks student newspaper, The Boar. She is part of the YGAM student team and is keen to investigate how universities can better support students with gaming and gambling-related harm through their mental health services.

The YGAM student team is urging university staff and parents to be aware of the multiple risk factors facing their students due to COVID-19 highlighting major issues associated with mental and physical health, isolation and how that links to potential gaming and gambling-related harm.  

It is thought that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its related influence on society and personal lives is playing a leading role in bringing about a deterioration in mental health, particularly among young people. Students have told YGAM that the Christmas break is increasingly feeling like a point of stress as not everyone is able to be tested within the mass testing window, students are going home to vulnerable families and work loads mean in won’t be the restful break they desperately need.

The NUS and charities like Student Mind have also warned of the mental health impact of academic workload, difficulty accessing support services, financial concerns and, in some cases, having to self-isolate in halls of residence or private accommodation.

YGAM’s 2019 research suggested that students often turn to gambling and gaming when they are feeling anxious or depressed, as a desire to feel more “in control” of their day-to-day activities. The research revealed 264,000 students in the UK were at some risk from gambling harm and 79% of students play digital games regularly.

Treatment charity the Gordon Moody Association has reported a significant increase in traffic to their Gambling Therapy international helpline from those aged 18-24 worldwide over the pandemic. They told YGAM there has been “what we consider to be some fundamental changes in gambling behaviour trends recently, with more young people, including students, showing sign of  harm.” 

They added: “There are also signs of more women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds getting drawn into gambling addiction. The lockdown in spring did shift people’s search for gambling outlets, online poker is one, but some people are even seeing risky stock market investments as a substitute when other outlets are not available. Gambling addiction is a serious problem but it needn’t be a stigma.”

The hospitality sector that employs many students has been hit especially hard by the pandemic which is likely to intensify financial worries for students. YGAM’s 2019 research showed that 59% of students who gamble say they are always worrying about their financial situation.

Sara Khan, NUS Vice-President for Liberation and Equalities, told YGAM: “One of the main reasons for this is that the student support provided by the government has failed to keep up with the rising costs of living. With the Covid-19 crisis, even more students are and will be struggling more financially.

“The costs of gaming and gambling can become a concerning burden and as debt increases, this can have an impact on mental health bringing increased feelings of stress, guilt and feeling depressed.”

As Anna Hemmings, CEO of national charity GamCare, says: “During the pandemic, financial worries, boredom and isolation have all increased, and given the availability of online gambling, this presents a concerning context for people at risk of gambling problems.”

With more universities coordinating lectures and seminars virtually, there is also an expectation that students will be spending more time alone during their higher education experience. YGAM has launched their ‘Keep Calm in Covid’ (www.students.ygam.org/keepcalmincovid/) resource on their  Student Hub to provide crucial information and support specifically related to the challenges of the pandemic.

The new Student Hub website is part of YGAM’s University Student Engagement Programme, which works in partnership with Universities and Students’ Unions to deliver a unique peer-led education programme. Its goal is to give students in higher education information and tools that support safer gaming and gambling and build digital resilience.