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When Sobriety Feels Out of Reach, Harm Reduction Saves Lives

March 09, 2022

When a person struggles with substance use disorder but isn't ready to get sober, harm reduction — which may come in the form of testing drugs before using them or using them in the presence of others — is an incredibly important approach to treatment. Harm reduction recognizes the reality that prevention and other efforts may not always be enough to stop someone from using a substance. Instead, it focuses on minimizing the impact that substances have on those struggling with substance use disorder as well as the local community.

What Is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction includes practices and programs that help people coping with substance use disorder. Instead of completely eliminating substances from your life, harm reduction provides resources and support for you to limit their effects.

The goal of harm reduction is to reduce the chances of someone dying from using substances. This includes minimizing the risk of overdosing or getting sick from sharing needles. By giving people access to resources, it's possible to reduce the harm that often accompanies substance use disorder.

How Harm Reduction Works

Shunda McGahee, MD, CGP, Medical Director of Ambulatory and Community Services for Beth Israel Lahey Health Behavioral Services, discusses what harm reduction might look like in practice.

"You can attempt harm reduction by picking a designated driver, not sharing needles, and planning on how you will get home before you use. These simple interventions have massive effect on society in general," says Dr. McGahee. "It is possible to use and have some consideration for others — even if you never meet them."

You may also want to use the following harm reduction techniques:

  • Avoid combining substances or taking more than one at a time

  • Before using, consider how you'll stay safe if something goes wrong

  • Don't drive; take an Uber, Lyft, or cab instead

  • Don't share needles

  • Don't use substances alone

  • Purchase your substances from trusted sources

  • Have Narcan available and know how to use it

  • Have someone who is not using (or using less than you) watch over you

  • Keep your equipment clean

  • Use in safe places with people you trust

  • Remember that you can seek treatment multiple times if need be

Explore Available Resources

There are many resources available to help with harm reduction. Below are some examples:

  • Designated driver programs to help you get home safely

  • Safe injection sites that offer medical supervision for people while they use substances

  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs that provide those coping with substance use disorder with medication to prevent overdoses and assist with cravings and withdrawals

  • Needle exchange programs that offer free, sterile syringes

  • Test kits that allow you to measure the purity of your substances before using them

Harm reduction acknowledges that some people cannot or do not want to stop using substances. Therefore, harm reduction makes it easier to find support and resources to use substances as safely as possible.

Are you struggling with substance use disorder? Learn more about behavioral services at Beth Israel Lahey Health.