What is “harms reduction” and why do we need it?

    This week, I was lucky enough to attend the Atlantic regional symposium held by Postsecondary Education Partnership—Alcohol Harms at Dalhousie with Venna Penney, the MASU vice-president of student life. At this conference, student leaders from Mount Allison, Saint Mary’s, Dalhousie, Saint Thomas and Acadia discussed strategies to encourage and utilize various harms-reduction strategies on our respective campuses.

So, what is harms reduction? This strategy realizes that students are going to party, drink alcohol and use substances, so rather than promoting abstinence, harms reduction “seeks to reduce the health and social harms” associated with these behaviours, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

In a university setting, there are many approaches that can be taken to reduce the harms of alcohol and substance use. One such area is in health promotion, prevention and education, in an effort to ensure broad access to information and effective education and awareness programs about alcohol-related issues. This is important to challenge social norms supportive of hazardous and harmful drinking.

There are three main features of harms-reduction strategies. The first feature is pragmatism: this means, according to the CMHA, recognizing that “substance use is inevitable in a society and that it is necessary to take a public health-oriented response to minimize potential harms.” Humane values are also featured in harms reduction, ensuring that individuals are not judged for choosing to use substances and their dignity is respected. Harms reduction also features a focus on harms (obviously), meaning that “an individual’s substance use is secondary to the potential harms that may result in that use” according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

At Mount Allison, these strategies are enacted by the Wellness Centre, and especially by our mental health and harms reduction educator, Maggie Brewer. If you ever have any questions or want to learn more about how you can reduce the harms of alcohol or substances during your time at Mount Allison and beyond, feel free to head to the Wellness Centre to chat with her!

If you want to learn more about harms reduction in general, you can visit pepah.ca for some great resources. Also, be sure to follow the Wellness Centre’s Instagram page for harms-reduction tips at @beinformedmta. And, as always, if you have any questions or concerns feel free to email me at healthintern@mta.ca. Have a happy and healthy week!

Rachel McDougall
Rachel McDougall is a contributor to the Argosy.