3. Supporting your Family Member’s Recovery

Harm reduction

The principles of harm reduction


Harm reduction is one of the four pillars of Canada’s Drug Strategy. The principles of harm reduction include the following:

    It accepts that substance use occurs, so it is best to minimize the harmful effects.
    It believes that a person does not have to have a goal of abstinence (i.e., completely stopping a behaviour) in order to be eligible for treatment.
    It is non-judgmental and non-coercive.
    It does include abstinence as an option.
    It honours the “nothing about me, without me” philosophy. This means that a person who uses substances plays a key role in their own recovery. When this is the case, more people may seek treatment.
    It values a person's independence and provider patience.
    It accepts that some people may not choose, or be able to choose, the least harmful path for themselves. Health practitioners and family members should still work with them regardless of what their goal is.

It is important to understand that when using a harm reduction approach, the person with the substance use problem defines their own goal. They may choose to begin by working on a goal to completely stop the use of a substance (abstinence), or they may choose to reduce their use so it no longer results in negative consequences. As a person moves through treatment, their goal may change over time. Using this approach, you still work with your family member even if they choose to continue using substances (Tsanos, 2014).

Your family member may also have different substance use goals for the different substances they use. When using a harm reduction approach, they may have a goal of abstinence from one drug (e.g., cocaine), but not all drugs (e.g., cannabis and tobacco). You can support them at any stage of their recovery.