When someone is struggling with a substance use disorder, that person must be accepted for where they are at. Holding a person to an unrealistic set of expectations is unfair. Not everyone can make the jump to sobriety overnight; in fact, not many people can. Very rarely is a person able to just shut addiction off? If this were possible, it wouldn’t be an addiction. In fact, the best solution to substance addiction is not developing an addiction in the first place. This is why harm reduction services are important.
What Is Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction is when measures are taken to reduce the addictive and harmful effects of substances. Harm reduction services are important because assuming that people will never abuse substances is unrealistic. Thus, to help in cutting down addiction rates, it’s best to help people avoid developing addictions when using substances to begin with.
Although some may think that harm reduction services only enable people to abuse substances, it really just helps people to be safe when using substances. If a person were to chronically abuse substances, that person will always open him or herself up to developing substance dependency and addiction regardless of if that person encountered harm reduction services or not.
At least with harm reduction services though, people that maybe just occasionally abuse substances and aren’t like to develop full-fledged substance addictions can do so safely and protect their health. Ultimately, isn’t that what addiction treatment is all about anyway? Helping people get back to optimum health?
Benefits of Harm Reduction
Harm reduction does not have any preconceived notions of where people should be in their lives or in even their addiction recovery journeys. Instead, it fixates on a more evidence-based approach to reducing health risks in people’s current circumstances. Harm reduction services focus on each person as an individual. In doing so, harm reduction services treat each person as a human being. In other words, harm reduction services put each individual person’s actual struggles and needs first, before any government substance use goals or rates and before any addiction treatment goals.
Rather than fixate on the nitty-gritty of substance use disorders, harm reduction services make no assumptions. By being human-focused, harm reduction services are effective.
What Are The Principles of Harm Reduction?
Although harm reduction services are human-focused, they do have principles by which they are structured. The principles of harm reduction services include the following:
- Have a non-judgemental approach
- Allow people to be where they are, not where you want them to be
- Treat others with compassion
- Treat others with respect
- Treat others with humanity
- Reduce stigmatization of addiction
- Practice evidence-based approaches to treatment
- Allow behavioral changes to take place as part of the process
- Celebrate the small wins
- Take smaller steps towards sobriety
- Include those who suffer from substance use disorder
- Human rights are paramount
- Fixate on the overall improvement of life
- Empower others to reduce potentially harmful circumstances in their personal lives
The principles and goals of harm reduction services are, ultimately, to treat people as human beings. It’s also imperative that those participating in harm reduction services aim to create a healthy community regardless of any substance use that may take place within that community. Most of these harm reduction strategies exist outside of the traditional addiction treatment philosophy.
How Do Harm Reduction Services Help People With Their Health?
Harm reduction services are beneficial to the overall health of people in a community in that they help do the following:
- Lower HIV risks
- Lower STD risks
- Prevent Overdose
- Act as gateways to treatment
- Provide safety
How Do Harm Reduction Services Lower the Risk of HIV and STDs?
Some behaviors associated with substance abuse are harmful to people’s health in other ways. For example, reckless sexual behavior, or having sex, high-risk or not, with someone without using protection due to being drunk or high, can lead to the development of HIV and/or STDs.
Also, sharing needles with someone while injecting drugs into one’s body can lead to the development of HIV or STDs. Hepatitis, or other bodily infections, can also be caused by abusing substances in reckless manners.
When a person uses needles for drug use, it elevates the risk of developing HIV/AIDS. Injection (as it relates to drugs) is responsible for 33% of HIV/AIDS cases. What’s worse is that 50% of the time it happens at birth. Harm reduction, however, has been known to lower the risk of these diseases caused by needle sharing.
Some examples of harm reduction services that lower the risk of developing HIV and/or STDs through the sharing of needles include the following:
- Syringe access programs – These programs have proven themselves successful in that they reduce the transmission of HIV and STDs while simultaneously keeping the rate of drug abuse from increasing.
- Safer consumption spaces – These have been known to decrease the transmission of HIV and STDs. It’s better if a person conducts risky, sexual behavior, consumes drugs, and/or shares needles in a safe arena than not. This is because regardless of how such behavior will affect one’s future development of substance addictions or not, conducting such behaviors in safe environments at least reduces the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS, STDs, or hepatitis.
How Does Harm Reduction Provide a Gateway to Treatment?
Many people think that harm reduction services go against addiction treatment. In actuality though, such services provide a gateway to addiction treatment by being a stepping stone from the real world to the rehab facility.
Harm reduction services act as gateways for addiction treatment by offering non-judgmental assistance to those who either need rehab or are looking for it (actively or passively). In fact, in 2005, there were 160 syringe access programs in the United States, 85% of which regularly made referrals for addiction treatment.
By offering referrals to people with substance abuse issues in a non-judgemental manner, substance abusers are more likely to take people up on their offer for addiction treatment.
Furthermore, syringe access has been known to reduce drug use on a large scale. For example, those who are active in syringe access programs are 5 times more likely to enter addiction treatment for additional help. Overall, this goes a long way to reduce, or completely stop, the use of needles and drugs.
All in all, harm reduction programs have helped people with substance abuse issues more easily be able to accept help in the form of addiction treatment. Harm reduction programs also have the potential to provide a space where people have access to naloxone and safer injections, thus reducing overdoses.
How Does Harm Reduction Provide a Safe Space?
Harm reduction provides an arena for individuals to dispose of safe injection equipment. This reduces the rate of dirty needles being shared around the community. In other, more unsafe environments, contaminated syringes have a way of making their rounds. This has a massive impact on those in the surrounding community, increasing the likelihood of sharable disease. This isn’t just relevant to those who use needles for drug use, but also accidents in the public space.
Reducing public disorder and public drug use has been a direct fruit of the labor of safe space harm reduction. Some studies have shown that 90% of people that consume substances through harm reduction services would have otherwise used syringes in public places to do so; this includes restrooms, parks, and the like. If not for facilities that allowed such people to use clean equipment, they’d be putting themselves at risk for disease.
In the same study, 67% of individuals reported unsafe needle disposal. Over time, specifically 2 years, one facility prevented 2,300 people from using needles in unsafe public spaces due to their harm reduction services. To put it another way, 1,725 syringes were prevented from being improperly disposed of. This only helps people live healthier, safer lives.
What Services Does Harm Reduction Offer?
- Syringe Access
- Safer Consumption Spaces
- Naloxone Access
What Does Syringe Access Include?
Syringe access harm reduction services provide the following:
- Reduction of blood-borne infections
- Sterile needles and other materials
- Materials that prevent diseases
- Referrals to different treatment and detox centers
- Other medical services such as services for HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis
- Referrals to mental health services
- Legal service referrals
- Referrals to social services
- Education relating to substance use disorder and other harmful diseases such as HIV, STDs, and drug overdose
- Education on Naloxone and NARCAN, as well as safer injection
- Safe education on injection disposal
Previously there have been bans on syringe access programs in the United States, but in 2009, the federal government lifted the ban. This makes sense because syringe access programs are generally cost-effective and successful in their practice. In fact, syringe access programs are now recognized by many as the most effective federally funded public health intervention.
All in all, many syringe access programs exist legally for those who struggle with substance abuse to use safer needles. The spaces exist under professional medical supervision. It is worth noting, however, that these spaces do not provide drugs. The only goods provided are safe needles.
Thus, syringe access programs help prevent the spreading of diseases without actively contributing to people’s abilities to access and abuse substances. Syringe access program staff also do not inject users with their safe needles, although they do monitor people’s use of the needles. Therefore, such programs don’t make it easier for people to abuse substances at all. They just help remove the risks of doing so if one goes out of his or her own way to abuse substances. Many of these harm reduction programs even require proof of residence to even access their services anyway.
What Are Safer Consumption Spaces?
Safer consumption spaces provide the following:
- Alcohol swabs, condoms, sterile syringes, and other safety equipment distribution
- Substance use disorder and detox treatment referrals
- Mental health, legal, social, and medical service referrals
- HIV and substance use disorder education
- Naloxone (NARCAN) training and education
- Safe injection practices education
- Safe drug injection equipment disposal
Throughout the world, there are over 100 safer consumption spaces. These establishments exist in 66 locations across the world. Some of these locations include the following:
- The Netherlands
- The United States
In 2003, in North America, the first safe injection site to open was in Canada, specifically Vancouver. When it comes to the United States, there are still quite a few states and cities considering the use of safe injection sites.
These cities include the following:
- Seattle, Washington
- San Francisco, California
- Denver, Colorado
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Ithaca, New York
- New York, New York
Naloxone and Harm Reduction
Naloxone is a tool used when people overdose on opioids and opiates, like heroin. The injection of naloxone has been known to save countless lives. Education and community naloxone distribution have decreased the number of opioid deaths in recent years. When people become educated in regards to opioids and the use of naloxone, they start recognizing the signs of impending overdose. This goes the extra mile in reducing overdose rates. As a result, more people are safe.
Harm Reduction Can Help Save Lives
Harm reduction has gone a long way in helping those who need to recover from overdose and substance use disorder. This aspect of recovery could mean the difference between a safe recovery and an impending overdose or relapse. At Harmony Place, our team values treating the needs of the individual first. If you or a loved one would like to find out more, you can contact us here.