Harm Reduction for Substance Use

Have you seen those recent commercials about quitting smoking that suggest that if “cold turkey” is too hard then you might instead try “slow turkey?” That’s the basic idea behind harm reduction for substance use. Although a majority of treatment programs available today suggest abstinence from all substances, there are other treatment options available. People who find that the traditional quit-it-all-now approach isn’t working for them may find that harm reduction is a good place to start.

What is Harm Reduction?

As the name suggests, harm reduction is a treatment approach that helps you figure out how to minimize the harm that substances are doing to your life even if you aren’t ready or willing to quit the substances entirely.

Many people want to reduce the problems that drugs cause in their lives. However, the idea of just stopping all drugs can be so overwhelming that they don’t seek support. They feel judged and stigmatized by programs that expect them to quit all use when they may not currently feel interested in or capable of doing so. Harm reduction is a more accepting approach that honors the individual’s right to choose their own path, even if that’s a path with drugs, and helps the person find ways to improve their quality of life even if they continue to use substances.

Examples of Harm Reduction

There are many different ways to use drugs. There are many different ways to acquire drugs. While abstinence-only programs say that you have to stop using them all together, harm reduction recognizes that you may indeed keep using them and helps you find ways to reduce the damage that drugs can have on yourself and your life. Harm reduction sees drug use on a spectrum and wants to help you move towards a part of the spectrum that allows you to have better days. Examples of harm reduction include:

Reducing the frequency and amount of use
Replacing a drug with severe consequences with one that has a lesser impact on the body and brain
Switching from injecting drugs to smoking them
Utilizing safe substance practices such as clean needles and keeping naloxone on hand in case of overdose

In other words, you have the opportunity to look at your drug use and find ways to alter it so that you are minimizing damage to yourself as much as possible. Some people keep making harm reduction changes and eventually choose abstinence. Others continue using drugs to one degree or another. The choice is up to you.

Benefits of Harm Reduction

We don’t see harm reduction models nearly often enough because most treatment is focused on abstinence-based recovery. However, harm reduction can offer many benefits including:

Assisting people who are not willing or able to give up drugs at this time
Honoring the individual’s right to choose their own timing and treatment
Reducing damage to individuals and communities where drugs are a prevalent issue
Offering therapeutic support to people regardless of their drug choices

More than anything else, harm reduction recognizes that people use substances for many reasons. There are a lot of intersecting issues that can lead to addiction including issues related mental health and trauma. People often self-medicate with substances and harm reduction recognizes that taking away the drugs without offering additional support may only lead to more harm. People using drugs can get effective, helpful, therapeutic treatment even while continuing substance use. Harm reduction provides a good starting point for receiving non-judgmental, respectful care.

Dr. Jeffrey Levine a Hartford Therapist Licensed Psychologist with over 40 years of clinical experience. He specializes in treating adults in individual psychotherapy, with expertise in trauma focused hypnosis, energy transformational healing and Internal Family Systems.