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Harm Reduction: strengths-based social work

November 30, 2018

We all want to help our clients to “reduce harm”, but it takes time to bring about changes in behavior and relapses do tend to occur—it’s a part of the recovery process. In my blog post about Motivational Interviewing, you can see “harm reduction” as a practical strategy for working through your clients’ Stages of Change. Remember: incremental change is the most realistic and measurable. This strategy embraces incremental change!

Harm Reduction is another way to meet your clients where they are. This is closely aligned with the ethical principles of social work—we don’t force change on others but instead use our training, theoretical principles, and practical strategies to assist them in eliciting it from themselves. This is truly the strengths-based approach that’s at the essence of social work.

Most notable for its application within the realm managing substance use disorders (notably medically assisted treatment, needle-exchanges, and safe-injection sites) Harm Reduction is a strategy that can be applied to many areas of human behavior change, e.g. sexual behaviors and alcohol use; and it’s a way to achieve both behavior-change in individuals and better public health.

The Harm Reduction Coalition (2018) posits Harm Reduction as both a set of strategies for reducing negative consequences associated with drug use and a “movement for social justice on a belief in, and a respect for, the rights of people who use drugs”. Although there’s no universal way to implement Harm Reduction, the Coalition identifies central principles:

  • Acceptance that drug use is part of the world we live in: Work to minimize the harmful effects instead of ignoring them or blaming/criminalizing
  • Understanding that drug-use is complex and multi-dimensional and that some kinds of drug-use are safer than others
  • Cessation of drug use is not necessarily criteria for successful intervention
  • Services should be non-judgmental to help reduce harm
  • Drug users and past drug users should have a voice in creating programs for them
  • Empower drug users as the agents of reducing their own harm by giving them information and support
  • Recognize social inequalities that affect people’s ability to deal effectively with the harm associated with drug use
  • Recognize the real harm associated with drug-use.

How do you incorporate harm reduction strategies into your work?

Please visit The Harm Reduction Coalition for more information.


Written By:

Ariana Tagliamonte, MSW

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