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How does harm reduction fit as a philosophy of social policy?

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How does harm reduction fits as a philosophy of social policy. Do you think this approach is reasonable? Is it cost effective? What are examples of harm reduction efforts you could support? Which are not efforts you would support?
Posted Mon, 25 Mar 2013 in Mental Health
Answered by Dr. Jonas Sundarakumar 32 hours later

Harm reduction is a well known concept which is applicable both in clinical medicine (especially psychiatry) as well as in formulation of social policies.

Harm reduction is a type of intervention and a public health philosophy that seeks to reduce the harms associated with a particular health risk. The aim is not eradicating the health risk or complete cure but merely reducing the level of harm or minimizing the degree of damage. Some of the common health risks where this concept is often applicable are drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, infectious diseases or certain human behaviours which may be potentially XXXXXXX or illegal.

One of the best known examples for the effectiveness of harm reduction policies is the advocation of safe sex practices, including condom use to prevent or minimize the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. There is enough and more proof that this concept has been successful and practically implementable throughout the world.

With regard to mental health policies, this concept has come under light when it comes to the area of formulating management strategies for drug abuse. Recent trends among drug users, particularly injecting drug users (IDU), suggest that drug-related harms have increased in recent years. There are high levels of sharing injecting equipment, using unsafe or unsterile drug injecting methods and a lack of easily accessible medical facilities to treat any drug-related complications. A harm reduction approach recognises that a valid aim of drug interventions is to reduce the relative risks associated with drug misuse. This is by a range of measures such as reducing the sharing of injecting equipment, providing support for stopping injecting, and providing substitution opioid drugs for heroin misusers with support for abstinence from illegal drugs.Some of the strategies commonly used are:

- Medically Supervised Injecting Centres
- Needle and syringe programs
- Health Education and Awareness programs
- Treatment programs
- Prison programs

The advantages or benefits of such management strategies are as follows:

1)     Studies have indeed shown a reduction in the transmission of blood-borne infections (like HIV, Hepatitis B, C, etc.) in areas where such programs have been implemented successfully.
2)     Health education and awareness programs have been effective in creating a positive awareness about XXXXXXX drug use practices, thus leading to less drug-related major complications. A psycho-educational approach has proven to be the most effective way forward in preventing morbidity and mortality.
3)     Many experts believe and advocate that harm reduction strategies are very practical and easily implementable solutions.
4)     It is a flexible approach where the aim is to try every solution with the potential to promote public health and to mitigate harm, rather than sticking to the rigid goal of complete cute or total elimination of the problem – which is very often practically impossible.

However, there have been certain strategies which have triggered a lot of controversies. Some of such controversial areas are:

1)     Drug Replacement / Substitution programmes.
2)     Proposals for Legalization of certain drugs / De-criminalization of certain risky behaviours.

The arguments against such harm reduction strategies are:

1)     Drug substitution programs may only result is substituting one form of addiction with another (maybe relatively safer) form.
2)     Such policies may give clients a false notion that there are safe or responsible ways to use drugs. They end up allowing drug users to maintain addictive, destructive, and compulsive behaviour by misleading users about some drug risks while ignoring others.
3)     Legalization of drugs may in fact only lead to alarmingly higher rates of drug use. We know that even the so-called ‘mild’ drugs like cannabis cause significant adverse health consequences and are often ‘gateways’ for harder drug use.

So, in my opinion, even though the policy of harm reduction can be effective in many areas, this may not be a blanket solution to all problems. So, harm reduction policies have to be carefully formulated so that they are targeted according to the necessity and have to be used judiciously.

Dr. Jonas Sundarakumar
Consultant Psychiatrist
Above answer was peer-reviewed by
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