While some people believe harm reduction is the same thing as enabling, others believe that harm reduction is essential in treating addiction. Harm reduction is a public health strategy aimed to reduce the risks associated with certain behaviors, such as substance use. It is crucial to note that abstinence is crucial for individuals in long-term recovery from an addictive past. That said, harm reduction approaches recognize the inevitable risk-taking of adolescents and work to reduce negative outcomes of such behavior. Enabling protects the person with substance use disorder by shielding them from the consequences of their actions.
The Benefits of the Harm Reduction Approach
Harm reduction approaches identify individual and community-based practices that improve an entire affected population’s mental and physical wellness. Harm reduction practices work through acceptance instead of abstinence. Harm reduction not only enhances support for individuals in need but also works to improve public safety. Services involved in harm reduction do not enable substance use but instead inform the public about safer ways to use and the potential consequences of substance use. Harm reduction organizations often provide:
- Opportunities for safe, open discussion about physical and mental health
- Education on safer substance use (such as methods to reduce risk of infection or spread of disease, overdose treatment and prevention, and safer sexual behaviors)
- Options for opioid substitution therapies
- Take-home naloxone kits (including medication to reverse an overdose)
- Outreach support programs
- Safe syringe disposal sites and sterile injection equipment
- STD and STI testing
- Linkage to necessary additional services (housing and treatment programs)
There are also multiple principles associated with harm reduction that create a framework of benefits. These benefits include:
- Non-judgment towards substance users
- Showing respect and compassion for all despite their personal life choices
- Reducing the stigma associated with substance use which increases access to essential health services
- Increasing knowledge and education around safer sex and substance use
- Reducing overdose deaths and other avoidable deaths due to substance use
- Increasing referrals to support programs and mental health services
Along with these benefits, harm reduction intends to make substance use safer for users that may not see abstinence as an option. It gives substance users autonomy to make healthier decisions, learning to promote their physical and mental wellbeing as best as possible. Harm reduction recognizes that healing looks different for everyone. It connects people with the services they need to enhance and support their life journey.
Why Harm Reduction Is Not Enabling
Addiction recovery follows the principle of abstinence because substance users who need recovery treatment are experiencing overwhelming consequences from their substance use. Harm reduction is a practice used for individuals who choose to partake in substance experimentation or regular use, even when experiencing negative consequences for their substance use. Rather than forcing a perspective onto someone unwilling to stop using, harm reduction helps individuals who have not decided to commit to abstinence. In other words, harm reduction meets people where they are, understanding that not everyone is ready to go cold turkey on their substance use.
It is easy to make judgments about others that may be suffering from addiction. Instead of making these judgments and deciding where individuals should be regarding their health and behavior, harm reduction identifies ways to reduce health risks associated with certain behavior. While recovery focuses on preventing substance use, harm reduction focuses on preventing harm resulting from substance use.
Harm reduction interventions are effective for substance use in a variety of settings and populations. The same research also shows that these interventions effectively reach a larger range of clients, such as in the workplace or houseless populations, when it comes to emphasizing important education about harm reduction tactics. Unfortunately, conventional treatment programs and abstinence-only interventions rarely seem to reach these kinds of populations.
If you are a mental health professional and a client expresses their goal to achieve substance abstinence, you want to do anything to support their decision. However, if a client is resistant to change or shows little progression or the willingness to change, harm reduction may be a useful tool to guide a client in the right direction. It is crucial to acknowledge that considering harm reduction intervention does not imply that clients do not experience consequences of their substance use. Instead, harm reduction means that their specific situation is not an all-or-nothing decision. Harm reduction is rooted in encouraging change and supporting a client’s autonomy, but most importantly, meeting a client where they are at in their journey.
With the rise in harm reduction services, you may wonder if harm reduction is the same as enabling. Harm reduction aims to reduce the health risks associated with certain behaviors. Harm reduction promotes situations such as engaging in safer sex or safer substance use. While abstinence is encouraged for individuals experiencing severe consequences from addiction, harm reduction intends to make substance use safer for users who may not consider abstinence an option. Every individual, user or not, deserves respect, dignity, and autonomy over their own decisions. While abstinence is not for everyone, harm reduction is meant to educate and inform the public about the risks and consequences associated with drug use before it becomes a problem. Research shows that harm reduction interventions are effective in reaching and educating larger populations about substance use. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center believes in the power of harm reduction intervention. For more information, reach out to us today and call (303) 443-3343.