When people enter treatment programs, we assume they have to stop using alcohol and drugs. That’s the only way to get clean and sober, right? Not necessarily. The use of the Harm Reduction model can meet high-risk substance users “where they are” to help them find a path to recovery. Not everyone is right for a Harm Reduction treatment program, but it can work for high-risk people. This includes those most likely to relapse and experience serious consequences such as rearrest, incarceration, homelessness recidivism, HIV, mental health disorders – and death.
Harm Reduction is a public health approach to reduce harms related to substance use. It includes many options and approaches. Harm Reduction can even include abstinence or not using substances at all. But stopping all substance use isn’t required before receiving care. You may ask, “doesn’t that give patients permission to drink and use?” No. The empirical evidence shows that harm reduction does not increase or encourage substance use, and it can reduce homeless recidivism.
Harm Reduction treatment programs are not likely to get high marks from 12 Step groups – one of the best tools out there for relapse prevention. Yet, there are many pathways to recovery. With the goal of lessening the consequences associated with substance use, L.A. CADA uses Harm Reduction principles with high-risk patients, such as formerly homeless substance users living in permanent housing. Harm Reduction can include access to safer sex and safer substance use supplies and/or take-home naloxone. It involves outreach and support programs, with referrals to health and support services. And it provides education to increase patients’ awareness of the risks they face and how to prepare for them.
Above all, Harm Reduction treats people with respect, helping to ensure that services are non-judgmental and available to all. The model helps to connect people with others and develop healthy relationships. It involves working directly with patients and their family members to learn harm reduction skills and how to access support in their communities. Remember, no one treatment is right for everybody. Harm Reduction is one more much needed tool in the evidence-based recovery toolbox.