The U.S. has seen a drastic increase in opioid overdose deaths in recent years. As the epidemic has grown, so has the need for harm reduction.
Harm reduction programs acknowledge that some level of drug use in society is inevitable, but that drug-related death and disease are preventable. A wealth of research shows we can save lives and improve community health by improving access to sterile injection equipment and Naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.
Yet, some decision makers are reluctant to support harm reduction efforts, such as syringe exchange or safe consumption sites. Though public health advocates often use data to make a case, data alone rarely change hearts and minds. There's a clear need for messages that are effective and engaging. Here's how to craft them:
1. Humanize addiction.
Building support for new programs means building empathy for the people they will serve. Share the stories and faces of people who have benefited or who could have benefited from harm reduction services. Be sure to use “person first” language, such as “people struggling with addiction.” Research shows terms such as “addict” or “substance abuser” can foster judgmental and punitive attitudes.
2. Normalize harm reduction.
Recognize the role of harm reduction in all of our lives. Everyone needs support to be healthy and safe. People who ride bikes need access to helmets. People who drive cars need access to seatbelts. People who inject drugs need access to sterile injection equipment, Naloxone, and drug treatment when they’re ready.
3. Share your vision.
Consider the larger goals you're working toward. You might ask your audience to imagine a future where help is available to anyone who struggles with addiction, including people who aren’t yet ready for treatment—a future with fewer deaths, better health, and more hope. Too many families have lost loved ones to addiction. Harm reduction programs can help change that.
4. Dispel myths.
Concerns about harm reduction programs are common. Be prepared to address them. Harm reduction programs do not increase drug use, crime, or the number of needles littered on streets. They are cost-effective programs that reduce HIV transmission and connect clients to drug treatment and other important services. They can also help protect law enforcement from needle stick injuries.
5. Form a relationship.
Ask questions. For example, you might ask your audience if they have anyone in their life who struggles with addiction. Listening is a simple and powerful way to create connection. It shows empathy and invites it in return. This is key. Empathy is a catalyst for any effort to prevent suffering and save lives.
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