As part of our commitment to harm reduction education, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of key terms essential for enhancing your understanding. Harm reduction encompasses a range of policies, programs, and practices designed to mitigate the adverse health, social, and legal consequences associated with drug use, as well as related policies and laws. It embodies the principle of minimizing harm and maximizing support for individuals facing public health challenges.

In essence, harm reduction work revolves around meeting individuals where they are, without passing judgment. It seeks to address and alleviate the risks associated with various public health concerns, including but not limited to mental illnesses, substance use disorders, food insecurity, homelessness, and more.

Below, you’ll find a collection of key terms commonly used by harm reduction advocates and policymakers, aimed at facilitating your comprehension and engagement with this critical field.

Key Terms

  • Addiction is classified, as a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences.

  • Advocacy is the public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.

  • Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the comprehensive healthcare reform law enacted in 2010 that
    expanded access to the number of people who could get affordable health insurance.
  • Biohazard Containers also known as “sharps containers,” are used to collect devices or objects like needles, which are capable of cutting or piercing the skin or regular waste bags.
  • Decriminalization means to remove or reduce the criminal classification or repeal a strict ban while keeping it under some form of regulation.

  • Drug Checking: A harm reduction service that allows individuals to test the composition and purity of substances they intend to use. Drug checking can help prevent accidental overdoses and adverse reactions by providing information about potentially dangerous contaminants or unexpectedly potent drugs.

  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment addresses co-occurring substance use disorders and mental health conditions. It integrates mental health and substance use services to provide comprehensive care that meets the unique needs of individuals with dual diagnoses.

  • Harm Reduction is reducing the harms associated with public health concerns.

  • Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. The virus is spread by contact with contaminated blood, for example, from sharing needles or from unsterile tattoo equipment.

  • Housing First Approach: This approach prioritizes providing stable housing to individuals experiencing homelessness, recognizing that housing stability is essential for addressing other health and social needs, including substance use disorders.
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)  is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom or HIV medicine to prevent or treat HIV), or through sharing injection drug equipment.
  • Low-Barrier Access refers to services and programs that are easily accessible to individuals without imposing strict requirements or barriers. Low-barrier harm reduction services prioritize inclusivity and aim to reach marginalized and underserved populations, recognizing that traditional service models may be inaccessible or stigmatizing.

  • Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) uses medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide treatment for substance use disorders including alcohol, tobacco, and opioids.
  • Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) is an evidence-based approach that treats opioid dependency. MOUD  combines the use of FDA-approved drugs with counseling and behavioral therapies for people diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD).

  • Naloxone, commonly known referred to as Narcan, is a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration designed to reverse opioid overdose rapidly.

  • Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is a chronic disease of the brain—sometimes called an addiction—characterized by the persistent use of opioids despite harmful consequences caused by their use.

  • Peer Support: Peer support programs involve individuals with lived experience of substance use or other health-related challenges providing support and guidance to their peers. Peer support workers offer empathy, understanding, and practical advice based on their experiences, fostering community and empowerment among participants.

  • Person-Centered Care is a way of thinking and doing things that includes the people and families using health and social services as equal partners in planning, developing, and monitoring care to ensure it meets their needs.

  • Persons Who Inject Drugs (PWID) are a medically and socially vulnerable population with a high incidence of overdose, mental illness, and infections like HIV and hepatitis C.

  • Stigmatizing Language can perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with mental illness and substance use disorders. Stigmas create barriers to equal access to housing, health care, and other resources.

  • Substance Use Disorder (SUD) involves patterns of symptoms caused by using a substance that an individual continues taking despite its harmful effects, also known as an addiction.

  • Syringe Exchange Programs provide sterile syringes in exchange for used ones. Additionally, syringe exchange programs often other harm reduction services like HCV and HIV prevention information and screening or referrals to drug treatment and social services.

  • Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) is an approach in the human service field that assumes an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. Trauma-Informed Care recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma may play in the care plan.

  • Voluntary Services are services made available to clients but are not mandatory.

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Last updated March 7th, 2024.