Harm reduction is any set of programs, policies, or initiatives that seek to reduce harm related to substance abuse and addiction. While its application remains largely in the addiction field, mental healthcare providers are beginning to apply harm reduction principles to depression and self-harm. The framework remains the same where the point is not the immediate cessation of the behavior. Instead, harm reduction focuses on reducing the chance of serious harm or death while connecting people to resources and support that can help them chart a better path forward.
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What Is Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction is a common approach in the addiction field. Instead of trying to get people to stop using, harm reduction tries to minimize the harm that stems from drug use. One of the best examples of a harm reduction program is syringe exchange. A syringe exchange program allows people who struggle with substance abuse to dispose of contaminated paraphernalia and receive clean needles safely. This reduces the transmission of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Harm reduction is also applicable in dealing with mental health. More specifically, depression and self-harm. It is not an approach that fits the majority of mental health concerns. However, self-harm is a natural fit for harm reduction because self-harm behaviors put people in danger. Straightforward ways exist to reduce harm related to people who struggle with depression and self-harm.
When harm reduction is applied to self-harm, it still relies on its original guiding principles. These are encapsulated through the following concepts that guide how people are approached when using a harm reduction framework:
Harm Reduction For Depression and Self-Harm
Using harm reduction to address self-harm begins with understanding what self-harm is. Simply put, self-harm is a type of coping mechanism that people use in response to severe mental distress. This could be depression, anxiety, loneliness, shame, or some other negative emotion.
Self-harm is certainly maladaptive, but it should still be thought of as a coping mechanism. That is particularly true when applying harm reduction to mental health because learning effective coping mechanisms takes time. Harm reduction seeks to help people while they are supported in developing coping mechanisms to replace self-harming behavior.
Mental healthcare providers deliver harm reduction through therapy sessions, education, and connection to resources. Even people who are not in therapy can benefit from harm reduction as many high-quality resources are available for free online. The first of these is a publication from the National Self Harm Network. They have published a risk-reduction guide that helps people understand their anatomy, administer first aid, and how to prevent infection.
The National Self Harm Network has another resource that was developed and written by people who struggle with self-harm. It is a workbook that asks reflection questions that help people analyze their behavior and explore why they are self-harming.
Addressing Depression and Self Harm at Insight Into Action Therapy
Implementing harm reduction when it comes to depression and self-harm begins by breaking down the stigma that pervades the topic of self-harm. Therapy is always a safe space to discuss self-harm but harm reduction relies on more than just what occurs during formal therapy sessions.
Self-harm is a difficult topic, but one that needs to be discussed among friends and family of those who struggle. Forced silence will not contribute to a healthier environment for people to get the help they need, nor is it helpful to expect people who self-harm to quit immediately. Family members must understand self-harm as a coping mechanism. Replacing self-harm behavior with healthier coping mechanisms takes time. Your support goes a long way toward paving the road to recovery.
Discover how Insight Into Action Therapy applies harm reduction to dealing with depression and self-harm when you contact 703.935.8544.