Have you heard about harm reduction?
If so, you may have mixed feelings about the idea.
While harm reduction has been around for a while, many people aren’t clear about what it means. A common misconception about harm reduction is that it condones or encourages drug use.
Harm reduction refers to meeting people where they’re at when substance use is an issue. It promotes the idea of reducing drug or alcohol use to safe levels. Rather than turning our backs on someone who isn’t ready to be abstinent, it allows space for a person to ease into the idea of moderation or sobriety, whichever is a better fit for them.
Reduces the Problems
Harm reduction reduces the potential problems associated with drug use. It doesn’t focus only on eliminating drug use.
According to Dr. Adi Jaffe in his article Top Ten Harm Reduction Names You Should Know, “Harm reduction typically refers to any non-judgmental, compassionate and shame-free policy, program, or practice that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use, compulsive behaviors, potentially dangerous activities, and mental health struggles. It centers on meeting people where they ARE, not where you’d like them to be.”
Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D. states in an article about substance use in New York, “It is critical that New York uses the full range of medical, psychological, social, and harm reduction methods and treatments to curb this epidemic, reduce harm to individuals and to society, and to treat each person in a dignified and integrated fashion.”
The message that New York and every state utilize the full range of options is crucial.
Many people hear that sobriety is their only option. Yet, that message doesn’t necessarily encourage a person to want to seek help.
While some people do need to remain sober to stay healthy, others can learn to moderate. Rather than lump everyone into one category, options need to be made available on a larger scale.
Solutions are different for every situation. One size fits all is not a helpful message.
In my opinion, the one-solution approach is easier to manage. And that is why it’s remained so entrenched. What is clear is that having one solution is not the most helpful solution for many. When people are paying for treatment, they deserve all possible options.
Harm reduction is a more humanistic approach. Rather than shaming or punishing someone because of their addiction, reach out a hand to them, and start at a place that feels doable.
“Harm reduction values life, choice, respect, and compassion over judgment, stigma, discrimination, and punishment.” ~ unknown
Principles of Harm Reduction
The Principles of Harm Reduction from the Harm Reduction Coalition are:
- Accepts, for better and or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.
- Understands drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe abuse to total abstinence, and acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others.
- Establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being–not necessarily cessation of all drug use–as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.
- Calls for the non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources to people who use drugs and the communities in which they live in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm.
- Ensures that drug users and those with a history of drug use routinely have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them.
- Affirms drug users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and seeks to empower users to share information and support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use.
- Recognizes that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination, and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm.
- It does not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use.
“Recovery is any positive change.” – John Szyler
Let’s support our children and other family members with compassion and without judgment. We then give them hope, acceptance, and the confidence to move forward.
Here are some reasons why harm reduction can help promote recovery:
1. Harm reduction gives people options.
Rather than feel there is only one way to change, options such as medically assisted treatment can be made available. Today, methadone and buprenorphine (medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction) are available on demand for people who want to stabilize themselves.
Medication management can cut the death rate by about half. Many cities across America have Naloxone available to members of the public. This service has reduced the number of overdose deaths from drug use.
2. There is less resistance to change.
I recently talked to a mom whose son has had a long history of alcohol abuse disorder. Because he doesn’t want to stop drinking altogether, he isn’t interested in getting help.
Especially for a young person, the idea of never touching alcohol again is a big ask. It is one that drives people away from change. If there are clear options, moderating use being one of them, more people would be willing to seek help.
The number of overdose deaths would be reduced. People would be in a safer zone around their drug or alcohol use.
3. Gives those in need a voice.
Harm reduction ensures that drug users have a real voice in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them. Harm reduction invites people to get involved in setting their own health goals.
When talking about recovery, focusing on the things you gain, not the things you have to give up will be more beneficial. People feel empowered when they are part of the process. They are more likely to follow through when they are not being offered only one option.
4. There is less judgment with harm reduction.
A core belief of harm reduction is to have respect for people struggling with addiction and that people have the capacity to change. There is less judgment when you are giving a person options.
Rather than accept substance use as part of our society, many people want to ignore or condemn those who are struggling. With harm reduction, there is less judgment and more compassion.
It is essential to understand that drug use is a complicated problem caused by many possible risk factors. We all need to accept that there are safer ways to use drugs, which creates less risk of death.
5. Safe consumption and needle exchange programs
Lara Okoloko, in her article, states, “Why Safe Consumption sites may sound like a bad idea but is a really good idea states, “I support the piloting of a safe consumption site in Seattle. I know that public IV heroin use is already happening. Probably like you, I read in the newspapers all the time about the problem of needles being found in parks, gutters, and restaurant bathrooms.
Safe consumption sites may be a hard pill to swallow for some. It may seem like moving in the wrong direction – shouldn’t we be trying to stop people from using heroin, not helping them to do it? What I have learned about public health approaches to drug and alcohol addiction is that these harm reduction practices save lives, reduce the risk for compounding health problems, and save money for the community.”
6. Harm reduction lowers the financial cost to communities.
While human cost is more important than money, all communities pay when people refuse to get help. With harm reduction, we will have fewer people in the emergency room. Harm reduction will create an environment where more people will be able to work and provide for their families.
Communities would have less of a financial impact due to homelessness if more people had a chance to be stabilized and enabled to function. With more living their life within a range of safety, workers would not be as needed to clean up in the aftermath of drug use on city streets.
A harm reduction approach will lower the impact of rampant drug use in all our communities.
7. Harm reduction saves lives.
Right now, in America, we continue to lose people at about 120 per day due to overdose. Others continue to derail their lives. Both prescribed and illicit opioids and heroin use contribute to these numbers.
Harm reduction encourages people to look at options that can lower the death rate. Harm reduction meets people where they are and moves them forward. It gives them a path that feels doable when they feel hopeless.
Let’s get out of our way when it comes to helping people find recovery. Let’s meet them where they are. People need options, so they are willing to stay safe. Instead of putting up barriers to better health, let’s offer many pathways.
There is more than one way of helping people live better and more productive lives. Let’s make harm reduction the new future in drug and alcohol treatment.
What do you think about the idea of harm reduction?