Harm reduction organizations coalesce to bring their tactics to the forefront of addiction treatment at Overdose Awareness Day, following 140 fatal overdoses in Buncombe county this year alone.
“You’re trying to minimize the risks that comes with whatever behavior the person is engaging in. Not fundamentally questioning the behavior, but saying ‘alright this is what you’re doing, how do we keep you safe while you’re doing it?’” said Jennifer Nicolaisen, OAD event coordinator and SeekHealing executive director.
According to Nicolaisen, a harm reduction approach to addiction serves to reduce the repercussions of the abuse. In terms of opioid abuse, harm reduction helps those using the drugs to avoid overdose by equipping them with information and tools such as naloxone, which reverses opioid overdose.
“Harm reduction is acknowledging that human beings are risk takers, that we take risks and we get addicted to things,” Nicolaisen said. “If we’re going to take risks and we just need to put into place strategies to minimize the damage that is associated with those risks.”
A harm reduction approach to addiction involves educating people about the root causes of addiction. According to Nicolaisen, two prevailing narratives about addiction exist: one being the person lacks discipline and strength and the other being addiction exists as a disease and not as the drug users fault. But recent research shows, the real narrative falls somewhere in between.
“The most recent research really shows that the truth is somewhere in between those two things,” Nicolaisen said. “And that addiction is much more an adaptation to an unhealthy social environment.”
This unhealthy social environment cultivates the root cause of the opioid epidemic, according to Nicolaisen, because it creates no room for genuine human connections.
“The root of the issue is we produce opioids naturally as human beings, endorphins are an example of this and not only do we produce endorphins naturally when we are exercising, we produce them when we connect one-on-one with another person and really feel that juicy sense of ‘I get you right now’ and we need that to feel happy and healthy,” Nicolaisen said. “It’s a basic human need and so I really fundamentally believe that what we are seeing with this opioid crisis is a widespread starvation for naturally produced opioids.”
As society changes, social media continues to grow and fewer moments for humans to interact with each other present themselves, Nicolaisen said we must be more intentional about connecting to aid in recovery.
“We need to be more intentional about connecting with each other. I really think that what we are seeing on a national level right now are people starving for connection and the opioid crisis is a reflection of a much deeper crisis of disconnection in our country,” Nicolaisen said.
SeekHealing, a harm reduction organization, aims to help people with addictions by connecting them with people and support to create a healthy social environment, Nicolaisen said.
“The idea being that we are an unbiased broker of different kinds of connection experiences and empowering the person to choose how they want to carry on their healing journey following whatever kind of intentions they have set,” Nicolaisen said.
A person’s intentions can be whatever they are comfortable with, according to Nicolaisen.
“We say ‘You’re not broken. Whatever you’re doing is fine, whether you’re still using or you have an intention to stop using. Whether you have an intention to stop using heroin but you fully intend to keep drinking or smoking cannabis, or maybe you want to abstain from everything,’” Nicolaisen said. “We don’t care about any of that. What we’re doing instead is meeting you wherever your intentions are and giving you whatever support you need to follow those intentions.”
The SeekHealing program combines one-on-one peer support and activities that introduce those struggling with addiction to healthy communities, such as yoga classes, pick up basketball and reiki healing, she said.
“SeekHealing model is founded on that basic premise that the opposite of addiction is connection,” Nicolaisen said.
The Needle Exchange Program of Asheville and The Steady Collective are harm reduction organizations in Asheville that implement another part of the harm reduction approach for addiction. According to NEPA’s website, anyone can come in and drop off their needles and pick up new clean ones, as well as sterile cookers, cottons and tourniquets. The Steady Collective offers free needle collection and naloxone distribution on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“One thing about the needle exchange that a lot of people don’t understand is that we are not giving people the green light to use. We have to understand that almost all addiction is rooted in some form or fashion in trauma and the inability to gain resilience in that trauma or from that trauma,” said Ginger Malcom, a certified peer support syringe exchange specialist at NEPA.
Through providing these products they hope to create a safer environment for those using drugs, limit the reuse of needles and prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, as opposed to forcing people to abstain if that isn’t something they want to do.
“Giving people the basic information and knowledge that there is support is essential. You can’t condemn an addict. It’s just like a diabetic, you have to give them insulin, you can’t expect them to cut it cold turkey,” said Dora Tovar, campus opioid educator for PEPAH.
Implementing these harm reduction approaches together brings hope to addiction agencies that fewer and fewer people could lose their lives to addiction and overdose, according to Malcom.
“It keeps people safe. It keeps people alive. It’s making treatment available to them and making recovery available to them,” Malcom said.