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Harm Reduction Saves Lives

May 10, 2022

By Ayzha MacLean, SCHC Harm Reduction Worker

​2020 has definitely been an interesting year. With COVID-19, most of us are experiencing life as we never knew it. Sadly, many people have lost their jobs or businesses, domestic violence and child abuse rates have increased and our health care system is overwhelmed. As a result, people are not receiving the care they need.

Social isolation, anxiety and fear are battling with optimal wellness; people are dying at home or hospital alone, while others lives have been turned upside down.

Scary, huh? This experiencing life as we never knew it thing.

As a response to this life changing event, we see people adjusting their behaviours, businesses accommodating contactless sales and even our government providing financial support. These are all examples of harm reduction; methods in which negative consequences are minimized and which support a healthier community by promoting optimal health and social inclusion.

I mean, I think we can all agree that we just want life to get back on track.

You know that phrase, “if you build it, they will come”? Well whoever said that wasn’t considering complex needs and a global pandemic!

The Harm Reduction Workers (HRW) at SCHC have been pushing through COVID-19 with our new “Mobile Harm Reduction Bus”; achieving meaningful connections while providing individuals with harm reduction supplies, water, snacks and connections to resources.

When it comes to substances, some of our day to day work includes preparing harm reduction kits, needle distribution, providing access to clean supplies and naloxone as well as developing or facilitating programming.

It’s also important to us to support our harm reduction family by “meeting the person where they are at” – wherever that may be on their journey. Sometimes this can mean providing housing stability or financial supports, connecting clients with external resources, providing condoms and hygiene kits and/or providing clothing and food packages in special cases. We also work closely with Toronto Police Services and other organizations to locate missing clients to ensure safety. Why? Because we know our clients are worth it!

“If it wasn’t for SCHC harm reduction, I wouldn’t be housed or have furniture! Even though I live in the west end now, I will be travelling back to Scarborough just for their support.” – SCHC Harm Reduction Client

In any case, being present in the moment with the individual is the most important thing we can do – to truly “be there”. Knowing our harm reduction family for who they were, who they are and who they want to be. Knowing what is important to them and how we can use their strengths to support them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

“I’ve always seen myself as an alcoholic, but you’ve helped me to see I am a man with a problem that I can fix.” – SCHC Harm Reduction Client

As Harm Reduction Workers, people often ask us, “How do you do what you do?” For us, we truly believe that every life is valuable, including the lives of people who use substances or engage in any other high risk behaviour. I often found it interesting that when somebody dies by suicide, people often respond by wishing they were there for the individual when they were alive. Individuals living with substance use give us that very opportunity – to be there for them!

“Nobody cares if I’m alive or dead except you, you are truly my angels – I love you guys!” – SCHC Harm Reduction Client

The reality is that, without harm reduction, people would still use substances but in unsafe and unsupported ways. This often leads to poorer health outcomes and possibly overdose and/or death. As such, harm reduction encourages safety, reduces illness and injury and maintains or improves the health status of the people using the substances.

To truly understand the implications of life changing events (or trauma) is to appreciate another’s journey. Respect for autonomy and dignity is a really important part of our role. The right to choice. This is where trusting and honest relationships come in – and those don’t happen overnight! As a HRW, we don’t always agree with the decisions of our clients, but we do respect that these decisions are not ours to make. Wherever the decisions take our clients on their journey – we will be there, with no hesitation nor judgment!

“I trust you because I know you care” – SCHC Harm Reduction Client

Whether you consider that piece of lava cake you just sliced, the layers of onion you just pulled back or a butterflies cocoon – there’s a lot more to it than what we see on the surface!

Remember, a plant won’t grow without water!