Harm Reduction is Emotional Intelligence

Harm reduction; that is a phrase that you may have heard about in the media. It can be a controversial and loaded topic, one that has grandiose misconceptions associated with it. 

We believe that harm reduction is not about enabling people to continue to do drugs. Harm reduction is about emotional intelligence and a set of principles that is based on humanizing and caring for everyone. It is about building safe and trusting relationships, reducing stigma, and ultimately, and most importantly, it is about saving lives. 

Covenant House Vancouver recently completed a two-year harm reduction pilot project, and the outcomes of this program showed us that it made a real difference in the lives of young people struggling with substance use.  

Many people argue that harm reduction leads to increased drug use or that it is enabling young people to remain in their addiction; however, with the pilot project, we were seeing the opposite effect and the metrics support this observation. 

Highlights and Outcomes from the Pilot Project

Some of the highlights from the pilot project, that we can share, are:  

  • 327 youth received 2,097 harm reduction kits 
  • 370 naloxone kits were distributed, and 19 drug testing kits were provided 
  • The pilot project received an external review, by the McCreary Centre Society, that looked at best practices, youth and staff focus groups, and survey results 
  • Based on our experiences, youth and staff feedback, and  the external review, an agency-wide harm reduction training module will be rolled out later this year 

Here are some outcomes that we saw from the pilot project and from those who received the harm reduction supports:  

  • Improvements in mental health 
  • Improved management of substance use 
  • Increased engagement with substance use cessation supports 
  • Increased engagement with CHV 
  • Reduction in harmful outcomes 

While we saw many positive gains as a result of the pilot project, there are a lot of misconceptions and stigmas that exist around harm reduction, such as:  

  • It is breaking the law 
  • It is socially unacceptable 
  • It’s an enabler 
  • It discriminates against drug users; drug users aren’t bad, they are facing challenging circumstances and are trying to cope
  • It perpetuates stigmas and stereotypes about certain substances 

Advocating for Youth in their Journey to Recovery

Drug supply in Vancouver and all over Canada is extremely toxic and getting worse. Organized crime groups are finding ways to increase profits, while tainting drugs with lethal and potent ingredients, which are more likely to kill. Not only that, but young people who do want to work on their recovery typically have to wait weeks upon weeks to be admitted into a detox program, and sadly, sometimes, by the time help is available, they have relapsed, or worse yet, they have passed. As an agency, and from this pilot project, we have had many learnings and revelations about what we can do to change the course of the opioid crisis. We have a better understanding of what changes need to be made to advocate and help youth on their journey to recovery, such as: 

  • Creating more awareness and understanding of people’s personal stories 
  • Hearing from youth themselves and listening to their needs 
  • Building trust and relationships 
  • Removing shame and stigma around the use of supervised consumption sites 
  • Making supervised consumption sites more permanent and accessible  
  • Providing services that meet the needs of the people, and enabling access to those services 
  • Changing our lens to focus on the issues that brought the youth to this point, rather than the drug use 
  • Realizing the connection between substance abuse and trauma 
  • Offering a continuum of care that supports all aspects of a person’s life; including how to manage and build a sustainable life during and after recovery. Many of these folks have been living in survival mode for so many years, that they don’t have the knowledge or perspective on how to build and live a life after recovery 

2,300 lives were lost from toxic drugs in 2022, across BC. That is 6 lives a day, gone. At what point do we say that we need to make changes to our systems of support for youth and advocate for something different? 

The youth that participated in this pilot program, made a choice to walk through our doors every day, and made a commitment to show up for themselves. They chose to use the kits safely and under supervision. And because they kept showing up, it signified to us that they trusted us and that we were a place that they felt safe coming to. Here, we worked to create a sense of unconditional love and absolute respect, a welcoming space without judgement, and meeting youth where there are, supporting them in their journeys towards recovery. Harm reduction is all about fostering positive relationships and letting young people know that their circumstances are not what defines them, they are worth love and support, and that they do have choices, and we are willing to walk alongside them in their journeys. 

To learn more about harm reduction, listen to our podcast with Guy Felicella, “Harm Reduction is Emotional Intelligence.” Guy advocates for vulnerable people suffering with addiction and mental health, and works  as the Peer Clinical Advisor for BC Centre for Substance Abuse, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Regional Addiction Program, and also the provincial Overdose Emergency Response Centre. Guy spent nearly three decades on the Downtown Eastside in a cycle of gangs, addiction, treatment, and jail, and attributes his recovery, and life, to harm reduction.