What is Harm Reduction?

In its simplest definition, harm reduction means reducing the possible harm from activities that humans do every day. As an example, wearing a seatbelt in a car or a helmet when bicycling could be considered harm reduction. Seatbelts and helmets won't protect us 100% of the time, but they do reduce the risk for injuries or death.

Does Harm Reduction Also
Mean Treatment?

Treatment is another harm reduction tool that is useful for some people -- but not everybody who uses drugs wants to quit and not everyone who wants to quit is ready to do so. For participants who are exploring reducing or stopping use, we can help provide substance use treatment info and referrals when requested. In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce harms that may come from using. This might be accessing syringes, overdose reversal education and more. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be healthy.

What does Harm Reduction Have to
Do with Injection Drug Use?

Sometimes people use drugs, and like many activities that humans choose to do, people who use drugs may face health consequences as a result. Most people understand that injection drug use increases the incidence of HIV, HCV, infections and overdose, but harm reduction isn’t about just injecting drugs. 

People who smoke their drugs also face high rates of overdose, a close second to injection. Hepatitis C, oral injuries and infection are also potential harms. Even snorting drugs comes with potential harms such as HCV and nasal and throat infections. 

Examples of Harm Reduction in Other Areas
Sunscreen
Seatbelts
Speed Limits
Birth Control

Here's an short video with an easy to understand definition of harm reduction 

Myths vs. Facts About Harm Reduction

Myth: 

Harm reduction enables people to do drugs

Fact: 

Harm reduction allows people options and information so they can take better care of themselves and their health. There is no evidence that increased use happens, and in fact harm reduction services like syringe access are economical, effective and safe, plus they are proven to reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis C. 

Myth: 

Any drug use is problematic

Fact: 

“Problematic” is defined differently by every person, just as every experience is personal. Unfortunately, the way drug use is seen and portrayed in our culture has only shown drug use in the most extreme, dramatic ways (and quantities). In reality, drug use happens across a spectrum and no one’s use is exactly the same. On one hand, some people don’t use any drugs at all. On the other hand, some people use a large amount on a daily basis and may even experience some “dependence”. Then there are all the people in between, using a few drugs to a lot. Most of them will move back and forth between the two extremes.

Myth: 

People who do drugs do not care about their health

Fact: 

People who use drugs care about their health as much as those who do not use drugs. And taking care of your health can mean a lot of things, like going to the doctor, brushing your teeth or accessing a syringe service program. Consider the images and words we often use to describe drugs in our culture -- they often portray sickness, addiction, crime and violence. They rarely, if ever, show people who use drugs doing things to care for their health. But the fact is, people who use drugs face many obstacles when it comes to maintaining health and finding healthcare. These include cost, housing, insurance navigation, finding a healthcare facility and provider, receiving poor or no care while there, emergency room visits resulting in claims of “med seeking” and more.

Myth: 

Maintenance meds or MAT (medically assisted treatment) is just a substitute for other drugs

Fact: 

Maintenance meds are not a substitute, but rather a helpful tool that reduces the difficult symptoms that often come with withdrawal. They do not get someone high and work differently than traditional opioids such as heroin or fentanyl. They have gradual onsets, diminish cravings and block the euphoric effects of other opioids. Taking medication for addiction and being in recovery are not mutually exclusive.

Myth: 

Recovery means sobriety and abstinence only 

Fact: 

Recovery is different for everybody. For some it means reducing use. For others, stopping altogether. For others it might mean quitting one substance but continuing the use of another. And yet for others it might mean not injecting drugs or only taking them via another route. Regardless of how it looks for each individual, treatment or recovery are harm reduction tools like any other.

Myth: 

People can quit drugs if they really want to 

Fact: 

If it were that easy, we wouldn’t need harm reduction, treatment centers or maintenance medications. It’s important to understand that people use drugs for many reasons, such as getting high to have a good time, pain relief or other self-medication needs or staying awake for job or personal safety.

Evidence has shown that the brain interacts differently with different substances, and that certain substances can cause changes in the brain that drive the cravings and need for that substance. These include nicotine, alcohol and opioids. It can be difficult to near impossible to “quit”, especially if access to treatment or support are hindered by a lack of money, insurance, childcare or by general life circumstances.

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