Harm reduction is a philosophy for reducing the negative results of harmful and/or dangerous behaviors. This philosophy can apply to all sorts of behaviors, from taking drugs to eating junk food, driving a car or having sex. We need harm reduction because people engage in these types of behaviors even when they know the possible consequences.
Harm reduction says, if you’re going to have sex, use a condom. If you plan to use drugs, stay hydrated and don’t share needles. Buy drugs from people you trust. If you are going to drink, don’t drive. If you are going to drive, wear a seatbelt. If you plan to eat a big piece of cake, take a walk that day. Or wash it down with milk instead of coca cola.
Critics of this approach claim that harm reductionists are encouraging dangerous or illegal activity. Clean needles promote IV drug use. Instead, the opposite has proven to be true all around the world. Switzerland has seen dramatic decline of heroin use since it has provided safe places to inject and receive treatment. The claim that condoms promote sex is untrue, as the reported rates of teen sex have stayed the same and sometimes decreased (Massachusetts) regardless of availability.
Many people are not ready to quit whatever it is they do, even if it is detrimental to their pocketbook, health, relationships-even if it might mean they will go to jail. Many people do not want to quit altogether, but would much rather get their issue-drinking or gambling or fondness for chocolate-under control. Either way, going cold turkey might not work. In some cases, such as a heavy drinking, quitting altogether might have dangerous consequences to a person’s health. Making a plan to cut down or slow down can mean the difference between success or discouragement or even illness.
What behaviors would you like to change? Consider making a goal for yourself that allows you to make gradual progress, be gentle with yourself, and take into account lasting change is difficult. Over the next several months I will address different aspects of harm reduction and how this philosophy might work for you or your loved ones.