You guys, its finally happened! The northern suburbs have a mobile harm reduction unit!! I feel crazy privileged to be the one driving the ship. Never in a million years did I think this is where my career would take me, but here I am, and we are about to do some amazing stuff.
One thing I like to tell people when they make comments about people needing to stop certain behaviors and or actions is, once you’ve had the fruit, you’re going to come back for more. And I think that is true of a lot of habits, behaviors, etc. For some reason, that seems to be hard for people to understand. But you can relate it to almost anything. Coming from the world of STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) I concluded, once people have experienced sex, how are they not going to want to do it again? Same with substances, food, shopping, whatever makes a person feel good. And when you understand that, it puts a lot into perspective. If we know people are going to engage in certain behaviors, habits, or compulsions, our goal is not to shame them, it is to help them do those things more safely. Especially when it comes to people who use substances. If they want to keep using, ok, how can we get them to be a little bit safer when they use it? That’s what harm reduction is. Equipping people with tools to cut down the risk of acquiring/transmitting a virus, like Hepatitis or HIV, testing substances for safer consumption, or wound care kits all can make a huge difference with communities. Those small changes help us get to the overarching goal of getting people to treatment, keeping people safe, and keeping them alive.
I am looking forward to getting on the ground, getting our message out there, and letting people know that we are here to help, to be supportive, non-judgmental, compassionate, and to meet them where they are at. People can recover, but it is not always an easy process. It takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of falling down and getting back up over and again, and sadly, a lot of hard times. But, when you know there are people that care and want to help, that think your life is worth living and can support you, it can maybe make the process a little bit easier.
A common question that comes up in conversations when people ask about harm reduction is the following:
*Aren’t you encouraging substance use by giving them needles?
My response: Does giving out condoms encourage people to have more sex?’ Does encouraging sunscreen use make people want to use less of it? Does promoting seatbelt use make people want to use their seatbelt less? Those seem to be scenarios that the lay person can wrap their heads around.
Bottom line: our goal is to keep people alive to give them another opportunity for recovery if/when they are ready. When you can build a relationship through harm reduction, that person knows they can come to you when they decide they want help, whether that be safer use, safer sex, abstinence, or just to feel heard. Every step matters.
Ana Gossman is Live4Lali’s Director of Harm Reduction Outreach Services. She has experience with communicable disease education, treatment and care as well as syringe exchange programming. Ana joined the Live4Lali team in late 2019 and has big plans for Live4Lali’s mobile syringe support unit “The Stigma Crusher.”
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This post was written by Judy Natale