Our fundamental belief that every person deserves a full measure of dignity and respect guides our work. The people we serve deserve the same quality of care and support as anyone else, and we strive to provide that. This is why we often say that we try to "meet people where they are" - we want to assist people in meeting their goals, not make them meet certain conditions we assign.
Harm reduction is another one of our fundamental beliefs, because it empowers people to use their strengths and skills to live the life they choose. It also recognizes specific individual and community needs.
Every implementation of harm reduction strategies is unique to every person. Harm reduction is about meeting people where they are and treating them with dignity and respect.
The Importance of Harm Reduction
Why is this important to us? Many of the people we serve are experiencing ongoing symptoms of mental health issues or substance use. Like every person, they have goals they wish to reach, and often these goals are impeded by mental health, substance use, or other circumstances - such as lack of housing. We work with them to create a recovery goal, which involves a person living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life according to their own definition. Their recovery goal may or may not include abstinence.
We practice harm reduction because we want people to be able to reach their recovery goals - and they cannot reach those goals if they are not alive. Guy Felicella, Peer Clinical Advisor for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, puts it this way: "If harm reduction didn't exist, I wouldn't exist. My family wouldn't exist. And the recovery I have today wouldn't exist."
So, in concrete terms, what does the relationship between harm reduction and recovery look like? The relationship that Guy credits for his existence?
Recovery and Harm Reduction
It means that we accept - for better or worse - that drug use (both legal and illegal) is part of our world. We are choosing to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignoring or condemning them. We understand drug use as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviors from severe use to total abstinence and acknowledge that some ways of using drugs are safer than others.
Overdose prevention sites are an example of harm reduction in action. They help prevent accidental overdoses, reduce the spread of infectious diseases, and allow people to safely dispose of needles.
Overdose prevention sites are often paired with additional services in order to provide an environment where people can more easily access counselling, health care, social workers, and more.
These sites improve public health by reducing rates of infectious diseases and overdoses from unsafe drug use. They offer specialized health care for a specific realm of public health, just like other specialized health care services such as an oncology clinic or surgical ward, which also reduce the load on more general health facilities and allow people to reach their recovery goals.
Putting it Together
The people we serve are often denied access to medical care, housing, and many other fundamental rights because of fear, stigma, and structural barriers. They are our neighbours, part of our community, and have families and people who love them. We believe that we should care about all human lives. Harm reduction is a critical way that we practice this belief, because it allows people to reach their goals. And as Guy said, you cannot reach your goals if you do not exist.