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The Harm Reduction Model versus Abstinence in Recovery

In the past, we have always looked at recovery as a time for sobriety, or abstinence. When someone recovers from an addiction their aim is to stay as far away as possible from their drug of choice.

However, more recently, there have been other models that look at recovery in a different way. One of these is the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is an evidenced based practice of identifying ways in which the physiological, psychological, social and financial burdens of substance and/or alcohol use can be minimized. It uses education about addiction and about a person’s particular drug of choice to help empower and uplift them. Although abstinence might be the result in the end, a reduction of harm model accepts an individual where he or she is at and does not stigmatize them for their substance use.

For instance, if an individual were to enter a sober living treatment facility and meet with a drug counselor. A reduction of harm model doesn’t promote abstinence. Instead, it explores ways that a person might be able to reduce the harm of the addiction. Perhaps that might be drinking two nights a week instead of four. Or it might be refraining from driving while drinking. Or a reduction of harm intervention might also be deciding not to drink or use drugs when on medication.

The reduction of harm model is relatively new to the addiction and recovery field. In the past 50 years, the field of addiction and recovery has changed significantly. For instance, historically, addiction was seen as a personal flaw. An addict was seen as someone who has moral failings and cannot resist their own temptations. For this reason, addiction was treated, in many cases, by bringing the addict to church and having them abide by religious guidelines as a means to heal.

However, addiction treatment has come a long ways since then. Instead of a moral failing, experts have agreed that addiction is a medical disease and should be treated as such. With this new view of addiction, much has changed. The tendency to judge it as a personal flaw might still exist within the general public, but medically and professionally addiction is now as an illness, something someone can acquire just like cancer and which can be influenced by genetics.

Despite this new harm reduction perspective, an addict (as well as his or her family and friends) might judge themselves as having done something wrong, made the wrong choices in life, or as someone who cannot cope with the demands of life. For this reason, the reduction of harm model brings a fresh air to the field of recovery. The aim to simply reduce harm in someone helps him or her see that addiction is harmful. But abstinence doesn’t have to be an immediate goal. Instead, a recovering addict can get there slowly, in his or her own time.

Because the reduction of harm model is so non-judgmental and accepting of addicts for where they are in life, the model is growing in popularity among mental health professionals. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, consider working with a mental health professional who uses the harm reduction model


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