MHA Harm Reduction Series, Part I

Harm Reduction refers to innovative, evidence-based interventions aimed at minimizing the harmful, negative consequences of substance use, untreated mental illness, associated high-risk behaviors, and systemic injustices. Harm reduction methodology is not contingent upon abstinence or other pre-determined commitments, but rather, focuses on meeting the self-directed goals of clients, as opposed to providers’ or agencies’ goals for clients. Harm reduction interventions are data-driven, cost-effective, & life-saving. The following list provides examples of commonly implemented harm reduction methodology:

  • Overdose prevention initiatives typically distribute naloxone (an opioid antagonist) and provide overdose recognition, prevention, & response training.
  • “Good Samaritan” laws protect overdose victims and witnesses from arrest and prosecution for possession, intoxication, and/or consumption of illicit substances.
  • Needle exchange programs facilitate the coordinated exchange of used syringes for new, sterile ones as well as other sterile IV equipment; many programs also provide testing services, peer support, outreach, etc.
  • Community outreach & education nurtures informed decision making & helps prevent harm and overdose when provided from a harm reduction perspective.

Harm reduction also refers to an over-arching perspective from which prevention, treatment, & safety interventions can be applied. The harm reduction perspective is underlined by principles of compassion, choice, scientific evidence, & social responsibility and is built on acknowledgement & respect for the following integral realities:

  • All substance use is not substance abuse.
  • Psychoactive substances vary widely in pharmacological & risk profiles.
  • Occasional-to-moderate substance use is a global & historical norm.
  • The goal of a drug-free society is unrealistic and socially irresponsible.

Harm reduction interventions have been successfully implemented for years in countries all over the world. Substantial data exists to support their efficacy. Harm reduction-focused approaches & initiatives challenge the overwhelmingly abstinence-based, punitive approaches dominating the field today. With continued education & support, harm reduction could help change the face of addiction services in the US.

This post was written by Jennifer Whitehead, BS, CPRS, a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and Peer Services Educator, MHA in DE. Jennifer writes curriculum for and facilitates Peer Certification training, Peer 101, Peer CEU training, and other related training.