The term “harm reduction” has been around since the 1980s, but it is finally becoming a concept people are familiar with. Those involved in caring for and treating people who engage in habitual, high-risk substance use and addiction behaviors know there’s no amount of pleading or threatening that will change a person’s actions. Harm reduction means meeting someone where they are and helping negotiate the inevitable outcomes of their decisions. It means increased acceptance of risky behaviors and focusing on ways to reduce damages through realism, flexibility, pragmatism and social justice.
Harm reduction interventions have focused on substance-using populations due to the inherent harms they encounter. IV drug users, for example, risk infectious diseases because needles may be shared or re-used. Safe needle exchanges, a type of harm reduction program, were created to give individuals access to sterile needles to avoid that harm. As a result, deaths associated with Hepatitis C and HIV have gone down and the cost of treating those diseases has dropped.
Harm reduction philosophy can be applied to us all: we all engage in activities that have the potential for damage. Many of us wear seatbelts when driving. While wearing a seatbelt doesn’t stop us from getting into accidents, it does reduce the threat of physical injury.
Harm reduction also helps fight the stigma of addiction by allowing people to make their own decisions without judgment and creating an intervention point for healthcare providers to introduce treatment. People who might otherwise avoid treatment feel able to participate more openly and find aspects of care that work for them.
Allowing those struggling with ambivalence about risky behaviors to make their own decisions as safely as possible can be lifesaving. Addiction is not a moral failing – it is a biological and behavioral disease that responds to treatment, just like diabetes and high blood pressure. Hope exists for healing as long as a person is alive.
Harm reduction does not promote drug use. In communities using harm reduction methods, drug use and crime rates both decline. The economic and legal benefits for communities that embrace harm reduction are well established and easily evidenced.
As our new Recovery Center opens in June 2022, Moab Regional Hospital will engage in general harm reductionist philosophy to ensure an unbiased access point for care. The new Recovery Center will have strong, evidenced-based standards, which include harm reduction as both a clinic culture and a form of treatment.
If you or your loved ones need support, education, or resources for substance use and addiction, please contact us at 435-719-3970. The Recovery Center will have Narcan and harm reduction kits available for anyone who asks.
Dr. Lauren Prest
Director of Mental Health and Recovery Services at Moab Regional Hospital