Harm Reduction: A Human Approach to Addiction Treatment


two individuals holding hands

Many opponents of harm reduction in addiction treatment hold the belief that the only way to address addiction is to enforce the complete cessation of all substances, but does that approach truly work for everyone? When there is such an extreme barrier to entry to get help, people are often left without any resources to help their use from causing severe or deadly consequences. Harm reduction strategies, in turn, provide more accessible stepping stones in treatment that allow for more outcomes than abstinence only.


This view that people cannot access help unless they are willing to abstain enforces a moral view of addiction instead of understanding addiction as a complex disorder. Sometimes this can even present as people being unable to enter homeless shelters, receive community resources, or have access to education or alternate treatment approaches. The evidence based approach of harm reduction helps paint a different picture of what addiction treatment can be that acknowledges the complex needs of people.


“Harm reduction values life, choice, respect and compassion over judgment, stigma, discrimination and punishment.” -Author unknown


The range of people looking for addiction treatment is vast, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While detoxification may be a necessary first step for cases of substance use disorders, others looking for treatment may want to find a healthier relationship with alcohol or their prescription medications, and may not continue the search if the only option is abstinence. By not recognizing and allowing for a more nuanced approach to recovery success, we are missing the value that comes when individuals experience such things as improvements in relationships, higher self-esteem, increased work performance, and better mental and physical health, all of which may or may not come with full abstinence. Similarly, treatment approaches that do not expect and have a game plan for relapse end up turning away individuals when they need it most.


Keep reading if you are curious to learn more about harm reduction.


What is Harm Reduction?

The foundation of harm reduction philosophy expands addiction treatment beyond just abstinence-only protocol and instead focuses on reducing the risks of substance use for the user and the overall community. Harm reduction can be implemented in treatment centers or a part of broader societal policies that work to minimize the negative impact of health, social, and economic consequences of addiction. The lens of harm reduction acknowledges that not everyone is ready to be completely abstinent from drugs or alcohol, though may still be willing to access support to lessen the difficulties associated with their use.

life saver floating

The concept of harm reduction is something that is present in many areas of life such as airbags and seatbelts in cars to reduce the risk of bodily injury from an accident or the use of condoms to lessen the spread of STDs. People are often open to the concept of building up safety measures for our world, so why not use this approach toward addiction?


Human Focused Addiction Treatment

The National Harm Reduction Coalition is focused on meeting people where they are at and views harm reduction as a humanistic way to engage in treatment. They have developed several principles that embody the essence of this practice. These principles acknowledge that substance use is forever present in our world and that there is a range of behaviors between severe use and complete abstinence. Harm reduction philosophy believes that there are safer ways to use drugs and alcohol than other ways.


This approach is non-judgmental and does not force people to meet certain standards in order to receive care. The end goal is not based in cessation for everyone, but on improving the quality of life for those using. Harm reduction seeks to hear the needs of people and to be willing to implement interventions that truly service them. This is an empowering approach that puts people responsible for taking actions to reduce their risk of harm. Still, healing centers that practice harm reduction do not minimize the dangers that any substance misuse can bring. Overall, harm reduction principles are aware that there are real inequities in our society and strive to help provide people with ways to manage the risk of use.


Examples of Harm Reduction Approaches

There are many ways that the practice and philosophy of harm reduction strategies can be used in the community. SAMHSA, a major contributor to advancing evidence-based practice for substance use disorders, finds that harm reduction is essential for addiction treatment and has provided potential strategies that harm reduction has been found to be effective.


image of plastic bottles and syringes on the floor
  1. Reducing blood-borne infections: Using a substance via injection or engaging in unsafe sex due to substance use can put people at risk for life-altering infections such as HIV or viral hepatitis. Some harm reduction methods to help with this are Needle Exchange programs, providing medical care including address injection wounds, education on sterilizing syringes and having access to medication like PrEP.

  2. Addressing death by overdose: Provisional reports from the CDC indicate that over 100,000 people have died from overdose from 2020 from 2021. Strategies to help reduce these deaths involve increasing knowledge around safer substance use. Syringe service programs, fentanyl test strips, and access to naloxone and overdose education kits can reduce risk of death. There are now also injection sites in which people can have medical supervision who use injectable drugs.

  3. Mitigating barriers to care: There is still a stigma to accessing addiction treatment in America. Since use can be labeled as a moral problem, many people with difficulties stopping may not try treatment at all. Providing alternatives to access care, opens the doors for people to receive counseling, education, or case management services to potentially address the reasons why someone is using.

  4. Supporting medication-assisted treatment: Also known as MAT, this is the prescription of medications that can help reduce craving and withdrawal symptoms or by minimizing the high experienced by alcohol or opiates. Providing medication-assisted treatment is an evidence-based way to support people without erroneously claiming they are “substituting one substance for another.”


Addiction Treatment at SagePoint IOP

SagePoint IOP meets people where they are at in their stage of change related to addiction and supports harm reduction efforts for the community and our clients. Harm reduction strategies may already be a part of your treatment plan as you transition to services with us from a higher level of care, and we are happy to partner with your established community of support.


We want all people to have the access to the help that they deserve in addiction treatment. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please reach out today to learn more about our services.