Harm Reduction

Harm reduction is an umbrella term for policies and practices that are focused on reducing negative physical, social, and legal impacts of substance use. It can also be applied to non-substance related forms of addiction and involve initiatives at the individual, community, and societal level.

Harm reduction is something humans intuitively do to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Examples of everyday harm reduction practices include:

  • using an umbrella when it is raining
  • wearing a seatbelt when in a car
  • applying sunscreen before a day in the sun

All of these are simple actions that let you participate in an activity with a lower risk of harm. When it comes to substances, harm reduction is about providing people with information to make decisions about how to use substances in safer ways and offering a wide range of supports for those who are struggling with or questioning their substance use.

A harm reduction approach acknowledges that substance use is a personal choice and that there are many ways for someone to receive care and support. Furthermore, this approach recognizes that there are positive effects and benefits to substance use in addition to the associated risks. It is important to acknowledge that even though one may decide to use substances, substance use disorder is not a choice. Harm reduction accepts the spectrum of substance use and provides support for all stages which can range from reducing overall substance intake, switching to less harmful substances or administration methods, or even abstinence. It also includes educating others on how to support those seeking help with substance use in ways that are free from judgment and stigma.

Harm reduction approaches used in each situation are tailored to the specific risks that are present. To rely on our earlier example, sunscreen will help to reduce your risk of a sunburn but it will not be effective at protecting you from the rain. Carleton adpots a harm reduction approach that recognizes that university-years are a time of exploration and experimentation for students. This is why we strive to provide quality information about the benefits and risks of substance use as well as strategies to engage in safer use. It is also why there is emphasis on ensuring support is available to those who are struggling with their relationship with substances and that we work towards eliminating the stigma associated with substance use and mental health. For more information on specific substances and harm reduction strategies you can put into practice visit our Safer Use Strategies page.