The University of Victoria Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC) has created a brief fact sheet on harm reduction approaches when working with youth, which would also be applicable to working with adults. The following is an excerpted from that resource.  (

What is Harm Reduction?

The focus of harm reduction is on people who are already experiencing some harm due to their substance use. The goal is to create movement from more to less harm.

Harm reduction means supporting positive behaviour while working to facilitate changes in risky or harmful behaviour.

In the context of youth substance use, this means openly recognizing the ways in which a young person is making good choices (e.g., choosing not to smoke cigarettes) while giving them strategies and information on ways to reduce the risk of harm from their drug use (e.g., low-risk drinking guidelines).

Harm reduction recognizes that some substance use is relatively normative and associated with few harms. It also recognizes that some people will continue to use alcohol and other drugs even when they experience problems as a result of their use.

Harm reduction respects the complexity of factors that bear on drug-related harm and the rights and responsibility of the individual as an agent in making choices and managing change. It recognizes a continuum of appropriate responses with a range of beneficial outcomes. Harm reduction involves a pragmatic, multidisciplinary, non-judgmental approach which addresses people where they are at. It imparts skills in self-care (and care for others), lowers personal risk, encourages access to treatment, supports reintegration, limits the spread of disease, and improves environments and cuts down on public expenses. And, it saves lives.

How do I use a harm reduction approach?

The key to a harm reduction approach is in working together with the young person to come up with common-sense ways to reduce negative consequences related to their substance use. Rome was not built in a day. Likewise, developing healthy behaviours may take some time, and change may be incremental. Building a relationship in which honest conversation becomes the norm is more useful than painting the ideal. A few words that demonstrate respect can go a long way when it comes to helping a person.

Harm comes in a variety of forms. Below are some types of harm you might consider discussing with young people:

Reputation: Teens tend to be very sensitive to negative comments from their peers. In other words, they’re very conscious of their reputation. Talking to them about the harmful nature of gossip and rumours can motivate them to change their substance-related behaviour, especially if their use of alcohol or other drugs is out of control and leading to embarrassing or shameful activities. Be sure to discuss the potentially negative impact of having embarrassing material or photos of themselves on Facebook, Myspace, etc.

Relationships: Families often bear the brunt of a young person’s drug problems. Whether or not their drug use is already causing problems at home, it may be useful to explore the possible ramifications of their substance use on future relationships with their parents and siblings. (This may be somewhat abstract for some young people, but for those already experiencing arguments and conflict, it’ll be something that’s already on their minds.) The same goes for peer relationships. Talking about the ways their substance use can impact their friendships may shed some light on potential harms they haven’t thought about before. Subjects that are personally relevant to young people — friends being one of the most important aspects of a teen’s life — are most likely to lead to positive changes in behaviour.

For any further information on harm reduction please feel free to stop by the O'Chiese Health Center NNADAP offices and speak to Nikki or Terri 

Article submitted by Nikki Landin, NNADAP Worker