What is Harm Reduction?

4.2 min read|841 words|Categories: Treatment & Therapy|
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If you or someone you know has been harmed by drug use in any way, you know that when it comes to drug use, staying alive and staying safe are the most immediate concerns. 

According to American Addiction Centers, harm reduction is “a set of policies and practices intended to reduce the negative effects of drug and alcohol use.” It differs from abstinence-based rehabilitation and therapeutic recovery programs which intend to eradicate substance use altogether. Instead, its primary goal is to reduce the harmful effects of substance use. 

The reality is, there are many people who use substances who will not seek treatment, yet may be at risk of incurring harm from dangerous practices related to their substance use. Drug use can be complex, and harm reduction accepts the fact that certain methods are significantly safer than others. The foundational principle of harm reduction emerges from the urgent need to minimize these risks and ultimately avoid serious harm, disease or even death.

Harm reduction seeks to reduce and altogether prevent harmful drug use practices such as: 

  • Needle sharing;
  • Dangerous dosage consumption;
  • Mixing harmful substances; 
  • Using drugs that are laced with dangerous concentrations of unknown substances.

Some harm reduction strategies include but are not limited to: 

  • Drug quality testing;
  • Managed alcohol programs;
  • Needle exchange programs;
  • Overdose prevention education programs;
  • Peer support groups.

Whether or not sobriety is a goal for you, harm reduction could be your first step to a healthier lifestyle. 

Benefits of harm reduction

The gradual approach of the harm reduction model can have many benefits. As with most things, recovery from drug addiction often is not an overnight fix. Change takes time, and a seemingly “small” step in the right direction can be monumentally powerful in changing someone’s life. Here is what sets harm reduction apart from other treatment methods:

  • Meets people wherever they are in their journey and accompanies them through small steps to a healthier lifestyle;
  • Employs evidence-based policies and practices;
  • Accepts the incremental nature of lasting behavior change and celebrates the small victories;
  • Prioritizes long-term improvements over total abstinence;
  • Cost effective; 
  • Prevents overdose;
  • Helps drug users feel empowered to take responsibility for their habits and improve the way they engage with substances;
  • Can be more inviting to a substance user who considers a journey to sobriety through rehabilitation daunting and unattainable. 

Harm reduction is set out to help those who may be too afraid to take the giant leap into recovery, and rather need the smaller, incremental steps to help them along their journey.

To which substances can harm reduction apply?

Harm reduction practices can help to minimize harm in the use of all of the following drugs:

1. Heroin and opioids

Harm reduction for heroin and opioids is centered around overdose prevention and promoting safe needle usage to minimize the spread of disease. In some countries, this is achieved through injection sites, which are centers dedicated to supervising drug users. Needle exchange programs (NEP) provide sterile, unused syringes to drug heroin and opioid users. 

Administering drugs like naltrexone, which lessens withdrawal symptoms, or naloxone, which can reverse an overdose, are also viable harm reduction options. Among the many steps that you can take to break an opioid addiction, harm reduction may be a viable option. 

2. Stimulants

Stimulant users can receive harm reduction efforts geared towards education and prevention of common issues associated with these drugs such as poor hygiene and dental problems. These programs may distribute personal hygiene kits, provide education on body image and refer users to various counseling and therapy resources.

3. Ecstasy

Harm reduction for ecstasy users includes education regarding safe quantities of consumption as well as the dangers of polydrug use. These programs promote using testing kits to ensure the quality of the drugs consumed.

4. Alcohol 

Harm reduction for alcohol strives to minimize drinking in excess, which can lead to diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease and cancer. Injuries, accidents and the destruction of relationships can also result from an alcohol use disorder.

Some methods of alcohol harm reduction include support groups, naltrexone usage and accountability programs specialized to provide access to designated drivers.  

5. Marijuana 

The primary aim of harm reduction regarding marijuana is to encourage informed consent and overall well-being of users. 

A balanced view: the downside of harm reduction

Several criticisms exist in regards to harm reduction, mostly rooted in the fact that reduction does not mean elimination. Some hold that these programs enable drug usage and make it possible for addicts to continue abusing substances that may lead to the injury and/or death of themselves and others. 

Likewise, a critique on needle exchange programs points out that a lack of regulation of these initiatives can actually lead to an increase of unsterile needles in circulation, as well as overdoses.

If you would like more information about harm reduction for yourself or a loved one, contact Pyramid Online Counseling to speak with a professional for more information, or call 833-525-3077 today.

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