Harm Reduction and Health Promotion

In this section, you will learn about how peers can adopt and support harm reduction practices to engage people in recovery. Upon completion, you should be able to:

  • Explain the goals of harm reduction,
  • Discuss the important role peers play in increasing access to harm reduction in underserved communities, and
  • Provide examples of prevention and health promotion measures that can reduce the health risks associated with drug use.

What is Harm Reduction?

A harm reduction approach prioritizes safety and dignity for individuals by providing nonjudgmental and noncoercive services. Ultimately, harm reduction is an approach that values reducing risks to improve health outcomes, rather than focusing on abstinence.

For people with substance use disorders, research has shown harm reduction approaches can reduce negative outcomes of substance use by reducing

  • fatal outcomes of overdose,
  • reducing risk of overdose, and
  • reducing vulnerability.

For example, syringe service programs reduce the risk of HIV and viral hepatitis infections (CDC, 2021). Participants in these programs are also more likely to enter treatment.  Other strategies include naloxone distribution, safe consumption sties, and low-barrier drop-in spaces.

Watch Changing Perceptions of Harm Reduction Strategies

Goals for Harm Reduction

Peer support specialists may be able to engage people in harm reduction who are not ready to stop using substances or other unsafe behaviors.  People who self-injure may be open to using sterile bandages and antibacterial wipes.  People who inject opioids may be willing to use sterile syringes and keep naloxone on hand.  It is essential peer support specialists understand the goals of harm reduction approaches and become familiar with local harm reduction resources.

Watch Harm Reduction as an Act of Compassion

Office of National Drug Control Policy goals that pertain to harm reduction include:

Goal: Shift from eliminating drug use to reducing mortality risks.

  • Objectives: Evidence-based harm reduction approaches including syringe services programs (SSP), fentanyl test strips (FTS), safer use supplies & information.

Goal: Confront racial equity issues related to drug policy 

  • Objectives: Low threshold services, reach into communities & reach out to groups, easy access, to care, screening, prevention education & relapse response                                              

The second goal is one that applies to peer support specialist working in underserved communities where people rely on recovery community support. Making sure people can access to harm reduction services through peer support can save lives.

Health Promotion

Preventing overdose and other health risks associated with substance use involves more than reviving people who are not breathing. Health promotion plays an important role in making sure people know they can take care of their health even if they do not stop all drug use. Many people who succumb to a stimulant overdose are over 55 and have pre-existing heart problems.

It’s important to encourage individuals to take a holistic approach to their wellbeing, and identify changes they are willing and able to make that can improve their overall wellness.