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What Is Harm Reduction Counseling?

Read on in this article to learn about harm reduction counseling and how it can positively impact your life.


Can Harm Reduction Therapy Improve Your Life?

When it comes to helping people with substance use disorder, much of the focus is on complete abstinence. Most treatment centers and support groups encourage individuals to work toward the goal of never drinking alcohol or using drugs again.

Any return to use is considered a relapse and a call for the person to strengthen their commitment to sobriety. This model has helped millions of people recover from addiction and reclaim their lives from the chaos created by addiction. However, lifelong abstinence is not the only model for coping with addiction.

Harm Reduction Centers

Harm reduction centers allow people with addictions to set their own goals. They provide a pathway to recovery services without insisting on complete sobriety. Harm reduction seeks to address broader health and social issues to help those with substance use disorder reduce the negative impact that addiction has on their health and social interactions. This type of counseling works to change behavior according to each patient’s goals, whether that goal is moderate use or complete abstinence.

Is Harm Reduction Counseling Effective?

A needle exchange program is one example of a harm reduction program that many people are familiar with. Needle exchange does not encourage drug use or make it easier; it simply makes it safer. By providing clean needles, an exchange program reduces a person’s risk of getting HIV and other viruses (or transmitting them to others) through dirty needles. This not only reduces harm for the people using needles, but it also reduces harm to the health care system and society.

However, needle exchange programs do more than supply clean needles. They also provide information and encouragement to stop drug use. A study reported by the CDC showed that people who participate in syringe exchange are five times more likely to enter recovery than people who do not use them.1 In addition, providing clean syringes has been effective in reducing HIV transmissions.2

Laws Set in Place for Harm Reduction

Drinking and driving laws are another common example of harm reduction. It is well established that even small amounts of alcohol can affect a person’s ability to drive safely, but the law still allows for drivers to have some alcohol present in their systems and remain legal to drive. The focus is not on complete abstinence but on reducing the risk of causing a serious accident.

Harm Reduction Principles

Harm reduction psychotherapy includes a spectrum of strategies, including abstinence, managed use, and safer use. There is no universal formula for harm reduction because the approach encourages each person and each community to be allowed to define their own needs. However, there are some guiding principles offered by the National Harm Reduction Coalition.3

Notable Harm Reduction Concepts

Those harm reduction principles are paraphrased as follows:

  • Accepting that both legal and illicit drug use is a reality
  • Minimizing the harmful effects of drug use is preferable to ignoring or condemning those most affected by it
  • Recognizing that abstinence from all drug use is not more important than the quality of life of a community and individual
  • Advocating for people who do or have used drugs to have a voice in the creation of policies and programs meant to serve them
  • Recognizing that social inequalities and discrimination affect a person’s ability to deal effectively with drug-related harm
  • Accepting that drug use is a multi-faceted issue, and some forms of drug use are safer than others
  • Advocating for a non-judgmental provision of services to people who use drugs and their communities to reduce harm
  • Empowering people who use drugs to support one another and share information that can improve their lives
  • Not minimizing or ignoring the real danger associated with illicit drug use

Harm reduction counseling is both an approach to recovery and a social justice movement built on the belief that people who use drugs still have rights and deserve respect.

Harm Reduction Programs

Harm reduction programs take a variety of shapes and forms. They may be peer-led, funded, and overseen by city, state, or federal governments, or part of a larger recovery program.

Harm reduction counseling techniques focus on compassion and accepting people where they are without conditions. There is no set formula. Instead, harm reduction treatment follows an individual path that changes as the client’s needs change.

Harm Reduction Strategies for Alcoholism

Harm reduction services for alcoholism may include advice for decreasing usage and managing usage safety. Some strategies include:

  • Using a drinking diary to keep track of how many units are consumed
  • Measuring drinks for accuracy, even if drinking from a can or bottle
  • Cutting down total daily consumption by 10% (and continue to cut another 10% at defined intervals if desired)
  • Staying hydrated
  • Transitioning to lower strength alcoholic drinks

Following tips like those above can help people with alcohol use disorder reduce their consumption without triggering uncomfortable or dangerous withdrawal symptoms.4 Working with a harm reduction therapy expert can help individuals develop a plan that supports their goals.

Harm Reduction Services for Drug Use

Some of the most used harm reduction interventions and tools for improving the lives of those with a substance use disorder include:

  • Naloxone kits and training
  • Free needle exchange programs
  • Overdose prevention sites
  • Fentanyl tests
  • Sterile smoking or injection equipment
  • Wound care
  • Vaccinations
  • Condoms and STI testing
  • Sex education

Programs that provide harm reduction therapy also help people connect with other resources to help improve their lives.

Benefits of Harm Reduction

Goals and Benefits of Harm Reduction

The main goal of the harm reduction model is to save lives. The National Institute on Drug Abuse concludes that people who use substances are at a higher risk of developing hepatitis B and C infection, HIV/AIDS, chronic health conditions, and mental health disorders.5

Other goals of harm reduction include:

  • Preventing overdose deaths
  • Reducing the stigmas associated with addiction
  • Increasing education about safer alcohol or drug use
  • Preventing secondary, drug-related issues
  • Reducing drug policy harm
  • Improving community safety
  • Preventing the sharing of contaminated needles
  • Preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections
  • Encouraging the practice of protected sex

Another important galoal of any harm reduction program is to connect those in need to the programs that serve them, including recovery programs.

Harm Reduction Counseling Services at Anew Treatment Center

If you or someone you care about has a substance use disorder and needs assistance, the caring staff at Anew Treatment Center is here to help. Our harm reduction programs for alcoholism and drug addiction respect the right of each individual to make their own choices. Learn about our other addiction treatment programs by calling Anew Treatment Center today. 

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