The UN agency acknowledged that many turn to drugs and alcohol in times of crisis, as a new survey suggested the pandemic has caused nearly two thirds of adults in the UK to feel anxious or worried.
But using substances to cope “can make things worse”, cautioned Dr Aiysha Malik, a technical officer at WHO Europe’s mental health and substance abuse department.
It is also vital that drug and alcohol services remain accessible throughout lockdown, Dr Malik said, as those with substance use disorders may face a higher risk of relapse.
The warning comes a day after the government added off-licenses to the list of “essential” businesses allowed to stay open during lockdown, emboldening pubs and breweries in their bid for permission to launch takeaway services.
Alcohol-related hospital admissions in England have risen for more than a decade, hitting a peak of 1.26m in 2019, the latest NHS figures show.
Experts suggest there is a thin line to tread between alleviating the strain on business, ensuring dependent drinkers avoid withdrawal, and encouraging increased alcohol use among the wider population.
“While keeping off licences open is consistent with clinical advice to protect those who are physically dependent on alcohol from going into dangerous withdrawal, they wouldn’t want to unintentionally send the message that alcohol is ‘essential’ to all our lives,” Alcohol Change UK’s chief executive, Dr Richard Piper, told The Independent.
“It’s important that the government, alcohol producers and retailers keep reminding us that it’s best to stick to 14 units a week or less.”
Dr Piper warned that “with routines out of the window we might well find ourselves reaching for a drink more often”.
Initial reports of supermarkets running out of alcohol and online retailers being overwhelmed with orders may point to a possible increase in consumption, but experts say it is too early to tell the overall impact that coronavirus will have on the nation’s drinking habits.
But it is logical to predict that alcohol only being available for home consumption may lead to rises in domestic violence, fires and potential increases dependence, according to James Morris of South Bank London University’s centre for addictive behaviours research.
“Predicting the longer-term behavioural impact is however particularly difficult. Perhaps for some, home drinking may become more embedded, potentially exacerbated by the further closure of already struggling pubs and bars,” Mr Morris wrote for the Society for the Study of Addiction.
“For others, the period could highlight how valuable public and social drinking settings are, resulting in a boom in drinking out to celebrate the end of isolation.”
In line with WHO advice, those who currently receive drug or alcohol treatment look set to retain access to services in the UK.
While frontline staff have providers have been designated key worker status by the government, providers have still been forced to adapt services slightly.
The UK’s largest provider, Change Grow Live, will be running some support meetings digitally rather than face-to-face, while those receiving medication for opiate use are generally being given larger prescriptions to reduce visits to chemists.
WHO Europe also said that mental health services should prepare for a surge in need as a result of the pandemic and essential social distancing measures.
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Its panel of experts also warned on Thursday that being classed as “vulnerable” could induce anxiety and stress.
Dr Malik highlighted basic strategies to help people look after their mental wellbeing, including eating healthily, exercise, ensuring they get enough sleep and social support.
It comes after a survey of 2,000 UK adults found nearly two thirds felt anxious or worried as a result of the outbreak, while 22 per cent have felt panic and three in 10 have felt afraid.
“This poll was carried out before full lockdown was introduced,” said Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director of research at the Mental Health Foundation, which commissioned the survey alongside the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Public Health.
“Even then there were clear indications that the pandemic was beginning to have a significant impact on the nation’s mental health.”
A list of organisations providing support for those concerned about their or a loved one's drinking and mental health can be found here.
Additional reporting by PA