• Scott Luetgenau MSW, LCAS

Harm reduction – Looking through a different lens

Harm reduction in relation to substance use brings with it a multitude of fears and misconceptions. Yet, when we think about how we utilize harm reduction strategies in our daily lives, our perspective quickly changes from one of skepticism to one of understanding and reliance. If we consider harm reduction to be the safety steps we take every day in order to reduce the risk of damage, injury or death, it is clear that the practice is crucial for our survival. From wearing seatbelts and making nutritional choices to using airbags, life jackets and wearing bike helmets.

When it comes to substance use and the epidemic we currently face, harm reduction has become an evidence-based component of treatment. It is a set of strategies and policies aimed to reduce harm and save lives. Harm reduction doesn’t give up on people, nor does it encourage or enable their substance use. In contrast, it provides a pragmatic and humane approach to treatment that ensures all individuals are afforded dignity and respect. It also gives individuals the opportunity to make informed decisions based on their specific needs.

Injection sites have been thrust into the forefront of the substance use epidemic as they fall under the umbrella of harm reduction and can provide individuals with a safe and hygienic environment where they can be supervised by a medical professional during their consumption. These facilities – which exist in other countries outside of the United States and have seen great results – also include educational programs, as well as sterile needles, counseling services and referrals to housing, drug treatment and more.

The benefits to individuals, communities and the greater society are numerous: For legislation, it can mean reduced costs for the health care system thanks to clean needle programs that prevent the transmission of infectious diseases, access to support and the prevention of overdose deaths; for communities it can mean a reduction of crime and substance use; for individuals, we are talking about the difference between a safe injection and an overdose that kills.

A holistic, comprehensive and successful approach to dealing with substance use in communities hit hardest by this epidemic means implementing innovative strategies and thinking outside of the box. We know there is no single answer to ending this epidemic, but research shows us that there are plenty of positive, safe and effective treatment methods and harm reduction is one of them.

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