Substance use disorder (SUD) may lead to many unfavorable outcomes such as infectious disease transmission, organ failures, suicides, and overdose deaths. For years, public health professionals and experts in the field of addiction and recovery have researched how to reduce the harm associated with using substances. Harm reduction is necessary to meet people where they are while addressing urgent health risks.
The Need for Harm Reduction
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. had been experiencing an overdose epidemic that caused tens of thousands of deaths each year. In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a tragic milestone of 100,000 overdose deaths. This marked a 29% increase compared to the previous year.
This reality is why harm reduction measures are vital when it comes to SUD. Implementing harm reduction policies and accessible programs can prevent some severe substance-related risks, up to and including fatalities. The most common harm reduction services include overdose prevention, healthcare, social services, and accessible treatment.
The U.S. needs harm reduction programs today because substance use has become a very disturbing reality for many families and communities across the U.S. Rather than ignoring or condemning people with SUD, more should be done to minimize harmful effects.
This realistic stance also takes into account the fact that SUD is a complex and multi-faceted disease. Recognizing that poverty, racism, past trauma, and other inequities affect people’s vulnerability, harm reduction offers a non-judgmental, non-coercive approach to SUD with getting the help they need to avoid serious damage to themselves or others.
How Does Harm Reduction Work?
Within addiction recovery care, harm reduction programs are part of the intervention and an effective continuum of care. They can decrease overdose fatalities, acute and life-threatening infections related to unsterilized drug injection (e.g. HIV), and fatalities due to addiction-triggered chronic diseases.
Depending on the program, harm reduction may have a wide spectrum, ranging from overdose education, distribution of overdose reversal medications, hepatitis vaccinations, co-location services, and stigma reduction. All of these can help those with SUD and the people around them.
Accessibility is key to harm reduction programs. Health experts have produced many emergency harm reduction supplies for wider distribution, including the following:
- Free syringe service programs
- Overdose reversal supplies (e.g., naloxone kits)
- Fentanyl test kits
- Safer sex kits
- Medication disposal kits
- Safe smoking kits
- Safe injection sites
Take safe injection sites for example. They help people with SUD who used to shoot up on streets find a safe location that has overdose prevention kits readily available. These supervised substance consumption spaces are designed to offer a humane and realistic response to prevent harm.
The Success of Harm Reduction Programs
As an alternative to abstinence-only interventions and treatments, harm reduction has been successful in its purpose. Research shows that the attitudes of healthcare providers have improved after receiving more education about harm reduction. This advancement has positively affected patient self-esteem and treatment outcomes.
The wide accessibility of harm reduction programs is effective in reducing the society-wide stigma against addiction. Therapeutic interventions like motivational interviewing have been effective as counseling to help with harm reduction. People who have experienced care with harm reduction in mind are more likely to remain in treatment once they begin.
Misconceptions About Harm Reduction
Many people oppose harm reduction because they think these programs condone or enable illicit drug use and worsen the substance abuse epidemic. Some communities resist implementing harm reduction programs in their neighborhoods for fear of increasing substance use and crime.
Although harm reduction programs focus on saving lives and improving the quality of life among people who engage in substance use, their accessibility also serves as a gateway to rehab. They give agency to people who abuse substances while offering them vital information about prevention, intervention, and treatment.
Practical Self-Care Advice for Reducing Harm
Whether you are in recovery, are looking to start the process, or are simply looking for safer ways to engage with substances, you can integrate harm reduction principles into your self-care practices. For example, avoid drinking and taking medications at the same time. When smoking, use your own pipe and set a limit in advance. Always use sterile tools, including cotton balls, syringes, or needles. Have overdose-reversal medications readily at hand.
Meanwhile, stigma reduction is a critical part of harm reduction. On the most fundamental level, all of society needs to acknowledge that all people, including those with SUD, deserve equal safety and dignity. We should not treat addiction as a moral failing. Reversing social stigma underpins all harm reduction strategies.
Have you heard of harm reduction in addiction recovery? This is an alternative approach to traditional abstinence-only pathways to health and well-being. Because SUD is a complex disease and social problem, we need a non-judgmental approach to support people who struggle with addiction. At Laguna Shores Recovery, our harm reduction program encompasses a wide range of practical strategies to help reduce drug use and its consequences. Local advocates drive a community’s harm reduction interventions, and therefore should reflect the specific needs of the community and the individual. Our team of licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists are experts in educating and supporting you and your loved ones. We embrace an integrated approach and a holistic view of the recovery process. Our full medical residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, and 12-Step programs. Call Laguna Shores Recovery today at (866) 906-3203 and work with us.