What Is Harm Reduction — and How It Saves Lives

We have all heard the statistic (I hope) – approximately 108,000 people died from an overdose last year. That represents a 15 percent increase in deaths from overdoses in 2021. Alarms should be ringing all over the country thinking about this.

It is not the case so much that more Americans are using drugs; rather, the supply of drugs in illegal street markets is becoming more and more deadly due to the illegally manufactured fentanyl, an inexpensive and highly potent synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is not only in bags labeled as heroin but also pressed into pill form and masked as prescription medication and other drugs that are used socially by all types of people. Yes, this includes teenagers going to a party and taking recreational drugs. Yes, this includes someone with anxiety thinking they are taking pharmaceuticals. Yes, this includes people who use heroin. Fentanyl is the ingredient in the drug that is killing more people than ever before.

While one year does not make a trend, change needs to happen now to mitigate any more loss of life. If there ever was a time for policymakers and advocates to embrace harm reduction, now is the time.

What is Harm Reduction?

According to the National Harm Reduction Coalition, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.

How can Harm Reduction Help?

Harm reduction supports and resources can save lives by preventing drug-related deaths, like overdose, and offering access to medical care and healthcare, social services, and treatment if they would like. These supports decrease death due to drug poisoning, and reduce rates of infection due to unsterile drug injection, and chronic illnesses such as HIV Hepatitis.

What are some examples of Harm Reduction?

A common example of harm reduction OUTSIDE of substance use is when a person clicks their seatbelt; driving is a very dangerous activity, and we mitigate that risk by wearing a seatbelt. Another example of harm reduction is wearing a nicotine patch instead of smoking. Wearing a face mask is an example of harm reduction during the pandemic and also during yearly cold and flu seasons. Some people drink a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks at the bar. You got it – that is harm reduction.

For People Who Use Drugs (PWUD), harm reduction could include not using alone, carrying and knowing how to administer Naloxone, using clean syringes, and disposing of use supplies safely. There are harm reduction centers around the country that can provide all these services to individuals and we need many more of these safe spaces. Too many people are dying, and every overdose is preventable.

How Do I Get Involved In Harm Reduction?

Get educated. Look at the success that Syringe Service Programs (SSPs) have had. Know where the harm reduction centers are in your community. Carry Naloxone and know how to use it. Attend a Harm Reduction Works meeting. Show compassion to any person who is using drugs. Reduce stigma around addiction and recovery by educating and embracing medicines like methadone, suboxone, and Vivitrol. Realize that not everyone recovers the same. Stay open-minded.

For more information on harm reduction, please visit The National Harm Reduction CoalitionSAMHSA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among other organizations.