U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has elevated the focus on the use of harm reduction in substance use recovery programs. While this practice may not be as well-known as traditional forms of recovery, it is gaining in popularity. Let’s take a look at this method and how it works.
What Is Harm Reduction?
As it pertains to substance use, harm reduction is “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use,” according to the National Harm Reduction Coalition. It is a strategy that seeks to meet individuals where they are, in their current state of drug use, and help them reduce the harm caused by that use. This approach emphasizes the importance of treating individuals with respect and dignity, rather than stigmatizing them for their substance use. In addition, it’s also a social justice movement to promote the rights of people who use drugs.
An evaluation of research on the harm reduction practices in prisons using opioid agonist therapy, syringe exchange programs and naloxone distribution found that these three practices did reduce harm to this population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained that around 30 years of research shows how effective syringe services programs are in reducing harm to drug users.
Why is Harm Reduction Used in Recovery?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, harm reduction is an engagement method “to prevent overdose and infectious disease transmission, improve the physical, mental and social well-being of those served and offer low-threshold options for accessing substance use disorder treatment and other healthcare services.”
What are the Benefits of Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction has many benefits for individuals, families, and communities affected by substance use. Some of the key benefits of harm reduction include:
- Reducing the risk of infectious diseases: By providing clean needles and syringes, harm reduction programs can help reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections among people who inject drugs.
- Reducing the risk of overdose: By providing naloxone and education on safer drug use practices, harm reduction programs can help reduce the risk of opioid overdose.
- Increasing access to healthcare: Harm reduction programs can provide individuals who use drugs with access to healthcare services, including medication-assisted treatment, which can improve their overall health and well-being.
- Reducing stigma: Harm reduction programs aim to treat individuals with respect and dignity, rather than stigmatizing them for their drug use. This can help reduce the shame and isolation that individuals who use drugs may experience and increase their willingness to seek help.
What are Harm Reduction Strategies?
Harm reduction strategies are based on the idea that people who use drugs will continue to do so, regardless of the legal or social consequences. Therefore, it is better to provide services and support to individuals who use drugs in order to reduce the negative consequences of their drug use. Harm reduction strategies include a wide range of interventions, including:
- Providing clean needles and syringes to reduce the risk of HIV or Hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections like endocarditis or osteomyelitis
- Providing naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses
- Providing education and resources on safer drug use practices
- Offering access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), such as suboxone, to help individuals reduce or quit their drug use
How the Process Works
The National Harm Reduction Coalition outlines eight principles by which people and organizations can use:
- Accept that people use drugs and work to minimize the harmful effects.
- Understand the spectrum of drug use and acknowledge that there are some ways to use that are safer than others.
- Focus on individual and community well-being — not necessarily on them quitting drug use.
- Provide non-judgmental, non-coercive services and resources to people who use drugs.
- Give a voice to people who use drugs in the creation of programs and policies that are created to serve them.
- Affirm people who use drugs as the primary harm reduction agents and empower them to share information and support each other.
- Recognize that social inequalities affect the capacity people have in dealing with drug use harm.
- Don’t minimize or ignore the harm affiliated with drug use.
How It Differs From Other Methods
Most models of substance use recovery focus on quitting use and maintaining abstinence for the long term. Harm reduction is different because it allows the person to decide what recovery looks like for them — be it getting clean and sober or just reducing their usage. This allows them to consider success based on their own terms and not those of a program.
A harm reduction program is also a judgment-free zone. Some traditional programs will stop treatment if someone uses drugs during the process.
Challenges to Harm Reduction
While harm reduction is a valuable and effective public health approach, there are also significant challenges associated with implementing this strategy. Some of the key challenges of harm reduction include:
- Stigma and resistance: One of the primary challenges of harm reduction is overcoming the stigma and resistance associated with drug use. Many people view drug use as a moral failing, rather than a medical condition, and may be resistant to harm reduction strategies that they view as enabling drug use. Overcoming this stigma and resistance requires education and outreach efforts to help people understand that harm reduction is not about promoting drug use, but about reducing the negative consequences of drug use.
- Lack of funding: Harm reduction programs often rely on government funding and charitable donations, which can be unpredictable and limited. Without adequate funding, harm reduction programs may struggle to provide essential services, such as clean needles, naloxone, and medication-assisted treatment. This lack of funding can also limit the scope and reach of harm reduction programs, making it difficult to serve all those in need.
- Limited access to services: Even when harm reduction programs are available, many individuals may not have access to these services due to factors such as geography, transportation, or language barriers. This can make it difficult for individuals who use drugs to access the support they need to reduce the harm caused by their drug use.
- Criminalization and legal barriers: Drug use is often criminalized, and many harm reduction strategies, such as providing clean needles or medication-assisted treatment, can be difficult or illegal to provide under current laws. This can create legal and regulatory barriers to harm reduction, making it difficult to provide essential services and support to individuals who use drugs.
- Lack of integration with other services: Harm reduction programs are often separate from other healthcare services, such as primary care or mental health services. This can create barriers to accessing other healthcare services, which can be important for addressing the root causes of drug use, such as mental health issues or chronic pain.
Harm Reduction Is Our Main Focus
The care team at Better Life Partners is here to help members in every step of the recovery process. We never judge or punish our members and operate with a harm-reduction approach making sure each member’s individual needs are valued. For us, it means that we respect and care for all people — regardless of if they choose to continue to use drugs. Some of our harm reduction services include providing Narcan to members and non-members alike, partnering with safe syringe exchange programs, offering community-based counseling, medications and more. We are focused on reducing harm in those cases giving people options, not consequences.
We’d love to share with you how we can help you or a loved one achieve recovery goals. Contact us today, so we can get started on the recovery journey.
National Harm Reduction Coalition — Harm Reduction Principles
PubMed (nih.gov) — Harm reduction: a public health approach to prison drug use
SAMHSA — Harm Reduction