What's the harm?

By Nick Adams

Part of my job as media and communications worker for the HKLN Drug Strategy is to help inform the public about the potential harms associated with substance use. The drug strategy uses a Four Pillar approach that includes harm reduction; prevention and education; treatment; and justice and enforcement.

When it comes to harm reduction we want to meet people where they are in their own substance use and allow them to decide what next steps are right for them. It is not about convincing people that they should quit using substances but rather providing them with resources and information so that they can be safer. From the outside looking in it might appear that harm reduction encourages people to use substances. That is simply not the case at all. If we are aware that substance use is inevitable in a percentage of our population then we need to make using substances as safe as we possibly can to minimize the harm to the user and those around them.

We all practice harm reduction in our own lives. Looking both ways before crossing the street wearing a seatbelt when in a vehicle and wearing a helmet while cycling are all effective strategies proven to reduce harm and suffering a serious injury. Many are aware of harm reduction methods for those who smoke cigarettes including the use of nicotine patches and gum. Those methods have helped those wanting to quit smoking but they only work if someone wants to quit.

For harm reduction to be effective there must be a realization by the person using substances that they want to change something about their use and a sense of accountability for that decision. While family and friends and community supports can come alongside of that person on their journey ultimately it is the substance user who must choose their own path.

They decide what the next steps are for them. It can be so easy to look at other people and determine what we think is best for them. What others may deem a problem in someone else’s life might actually be the solution that person is using to stay alive. Do we ever stop and think about the fact that there are people who use substances to cope with pain and trauma in their life? Could it be that some people are using substances to just get themselves through the day? For this person just the idea of quitting would seem completely ludicrous.

As I mentioned two weeks ago I am practicing abstinence as part of my substance use recovery plan because I have tried a variety of other options and found that it is the best way for me to stay healthy. It is by no means the only way. If I were to impose my own beliefs on others I might be setting them up to fail as they come to grips with what harm reduction can do to help them. It is not a case of either abstinence or harm reduction – they are both viable options for people who have indicated that they want to change.

If someone chooses to go from consuming a 12-pack of beer a day to a six-pack and is able to do it that is a huge step for them personally and it reduces some the harm associated with their drinking. They determine what success means to them. They can then evaluate where they are when they get to that step and decide for themselves what they want to do next.

Effective harm reduction uses a holistic approach to engage individuals where they are on the substance use continuum in a non-judgmental way. In the coming weeks I will write about specific harm reduction strategies that can be practiced for different substances. It is important that we shift our thinking away from viewing harm reduction through our own value-based lenses and see that it has the potential to not only reduce the risks associated with substance use but also provide those who want to change with a way to begin that often long and difficult process.

For me it took 15 years from the time I was first introduced to harm reduction methods to settle on what works for me. Thankfully there are those who “get it” a lot sooner than that because the decision not to embrace harm reduction strategies could be fatal. Harm reduction saves lives – it acts as a life preserver until the required and appropriate help arrives.

Next week I will be writing about a substance that has placed a significant burden on our health care and legal system. It is also now the most readily available substance in our province.

Reach me at communications@hklndrugstrategy.ca or by phone at 705-854-1072. Follow us on Twitter @HKLNDrugStrat and Facebook @HKLNDrugStrategy.

Nick Adams is the Media and Communications Worker for the Haliburton Kawartha Lakes Northumberland Drug Strategy. Through a series of weekly columns Nick will discuss how the Drug Strategy is reducing the harms and stigma around substance use in our communities and will offer a unique perspective to the various weekly topics by sharing his own personal experience.