Harm reduction is an approach or strategy aimed at reducing the risks and harmful effects associated with substance use and addictive behaviours for the individual, the community and society as a whole. It is deemed a realistic, pragmatic, humane and successful approach to addressing issues of substance use. Recognizing that abstinence may be neither a realistic or a desirable goal for some users (especially in the short term), the use of substances is accepted as a fact and the main focus is placed on reducing harm while use continues.
Why harm reduction and not abstinence only? It is important to acknowledge that for many people, substance use is not necessarily harmful. For others, addictions can be debilitating, and can undermine relationships, health and survival. However, considerable research on addictions points to the fact that when you put people in treatment who do NOT want to quit, or are in the ‘precontemplative’ stage of change, the success rates are very low. Different people need different supports and solutions. The key here is to work with a person where they are at, and to give them choices and options.
Such interventions aim to heal the person as a whole. Rather than just addressing substance use on its own, treatment interventions also need to address other problems that may have either led to or arisen from the use of substances. In thinking about addressing substance use and addictions, it is also important to consider and address broader structural factors that underlie and produce harms. For instance, it makes no sense to force a homeless person into treatment if the factors that contribute to their addictions – their homelessness and poverty – are not addressed. We do know from the At Home / Chez Soi (Housing First) project, that if you house people who are chronically homeless and who have complex problems, their addictions issues often decline.
Learn more about harm reduction at the Homeless Hub: homelesshub.ca/Topics/Harm-Reduction-273.aspx
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