The topic of harm reduction has become a lot more popular in recent years, and for good reason--statistically, it works, but many of its methods are considered to be highly unconventional, stigmatized, and controversial.
From providing medically-assisted treatment to opioid addicts to needle exchange programs for addicts in general to the concept of “wet shelters” for homeless people struggling with alcoholism, harm reduction consists of a wide range of services and policies to assist drug and alcohol users with mitigating and reducing the harm associated with drug and alcohol use.
But there’s a lot more to harm reduction than meets the eye, and there’s also a tremendous amount of misinformation and stigma surrounding the subject. Let’s break down the details of harm reduction and learn why it’s so important now more than ever as over 100 people in the United States are dying from drug overdoses every single day.
What Is Harm Reduction?
According to harmreduction.org, harm reduction is “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in and respect for the rights of people who use drugs.”
Essentially, harm reductive practices are designed with the understanding that addicts in active addiction (and drug users in general) deserve compassionate care and services to help minimize the negative effects of their drug use and maximize their quality of life until they’re (hopefully) eventually ready to seek more comprehensive treatment to stop using entirely.
However, regardless of whether or not an addict ever seeks treatment for the complete cessation of their drug use, the goal of harm reduction remains the same: first and foremost, treat addicts like human beings, give them safer methods of using whenever possible, and ideally prevent them from overdosing in the meantime.
So, what sort of services and policies make up harm reduction, anyway?
What Services Does Harm Reduction Include?
Harm reduction consists of a wide range of services and policies all intended to reduce overdose deaths, minimize the stigmatization of drug use, and increase the quality of life for people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. These services include but are not limited to:
Medically-assisted treatment for opioid users to minimize drug withdrawal symptoms (primarily in the form of methadone and buprenorphine)
Needle exchange programs
Access to naloxone (Narcan), which reverses opioid overdoses
Drug consumption rooms or facilities to provide addicts with a safer space to use
Non-abstinence based housing and employment (meaning addicts are not required to cease drug use immediately to receive these resources)
Other psychosocial support programs like therapy and counseling
If I had to sum up the main goal of harm reduction in one succinct definition, it’d be to keep people struggling with addiction alive, safe, and informed by meeting them wherever they are in their journey to recovery.
Does Harm Reduction Make A Difference?
In short, yes. Harm reduction programs have been proven to not only lower the rates of crime related to drug use but also emergency room visits and overdoses related to drug use.
For example, let’s look at needle exchange programs, which provide addicts with clean syringes and safe places to dispose of used syringes. Needle exchange programs have been implemented in various cities not only in America but all around the world to provide IV drug users with a safer means of using drugs and reducing the occurrence of sharing or reusing needles.
Studies have shown that, over time, access to these programs has lowered rates of HIV, HCV (also known as Hepatitis C), and other blood-borne viruses and has lowered the overall cost of treating them significantly.
We could also look at the overall effects of MAT (medication-assisted treatment) on opioid and alcohol users.
Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, and naloxone are designed to minimize withdrawal effects associated with sudden cessation of drug use and block the euphoric effects of opioid drugs. Most MAT programs also implement counseling and group therapy to further address the root causes of a user’s addiction, such as underlying psychiatric disorders or trauma.
These programs have been found to not only improve treatment outcomes for people with substance use disorder but also reduce illicit drug use, overdoses, and other risk behaviors.
And these services are just the beginning of what harm reduction entails! Imagine what we could accomplish by further destigmatizing addiction and increasing access to these sorts of programs.