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What is Harm Reduction?

Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD

August 30, 2021

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What is harm reduction? 

Answer

Harm reduction was developed as an alternative to the disease model and the abstinence approach. So, what exactly is harm reduction? Harm reduction is an approach to dealing with problems with drugs and alcohol that may be operationalized through specialized programs, social policies, and clinical interventions. 

Harm reduction is designed to reduce various types of harm associated with use. When people use alcohol or other drugs, they may be negatively affected physically, psychologically, socially, legally, financially, and even spiritually. For instance, a person using alcohol could incur liver damage, depression, divorce, DUI charges, loss of a job, and loss of meaning or purpose in life. Each person's lived experience of harm will vary and is unique to that person. People may be affected differently and have different assessments of their risks. 

Harm reduction is offered to people on a voluntary basis. Social workers and other health professionals do not judge people or discriminate against them because of their substance use. Rather, they offer a variety of options to help people reduce the risks associated with use. They do not insist on abstinence. Instead, they allow clients to decide what is best for themselves. 

As you can see, this differs very much from an abstinence approach where we are requiring people not to just control their use or limit harm but to stop their use altogether. Therefore, harm reduction is not just one type of program, policy, or intervention. 

 

 

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the webinar,  The Ethics of Harm Reduction: Approaches in Social Work Practice, presented by Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, Phd.


allan barsky

Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD

Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD, is a professor at Florida Atlantic University where he teaches professional ethics, conflict resolution, addictions, and pedagogy. In 2020, he was awarded FAU’s “Scholar of the Year Award.” His book credits include “Interprofessional Practice with Diverse Populations,” “Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions,” “Successful Social Work Education,” and “Ethics & Values in Social Work.” Dr. Barsky is a Past Chair of the National Ethics Committee of the NASW, and received the 2015 “Excellence in Ethics Award” from NASW. He has taught internationally in Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, Korea, Netherlands, and Finland.


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