The drug addiction epidemic has been a serious public health issue for quite some time in the United States. In recent news, opioids have been the center of attention as the number of overdoses continues to rise, with an average of 130 Americans each day dying from an opioid overdose.

This and other staggering and devastating statistics, along with the emotional and financial impact that the drug use epidemic has caused, has raised the need for new policies, treatments, and approaches to combating the problem.

While there are ample resources available in the private sector, such as treatment facilities and rehabilitation centers, harm reduction is a set of ideas and strategies that are in place to help reduce the harms associated with drug use. Many treatments and recovery programs have an end goal of abstinence. There are several stark differences between harm reduction vs abstinence, and we’ll dive into the matter deeper here.

What is Abstinence?

In the substance abuse recovery field, abstinence is a goal that describes the process of avoiding or not engaging in the use of addictive substances. The first program that was specifically focused on abstinence as recovery from addiction was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The cornerstone and end goal of their approach was to have members abstain from alcohol as a requirement in their recovery. This approach has been adopted by many other programs and treatment strategies but has been met with some push-back.

Abstinence is a very rigid, no exceptions approach that can be frightening to addicts and considered by some factions in the addiction field to be impractical for some who want to overcome addictive behavior.

The term sobriety is often heard of in the recovery industry and there is a difference between sobriety and abstinence. Abstinence refers to the step of discontinued use of a substance, while sobriety is thought to be a process that involves being free from the control of addictive substances while learning about the personal addiction and growing to help stay free from addiction. Basically, abstinence is required for sobriety, but not all who engage in abstinence experience sobriety.

difference between sobriety and abstinence

Because alcohol is a different type of drug and addiction, some believe abstinence to be unnecessary, and some drinkers can tone back their drinking and regain control without the need to abstain completely. This dichotomy in belief has forced individuals who work in the recovery field or those with addictions who are seeking help to choose sides between abstinence programs and harm reduction approaches as if they are both mutually exclusive.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is an approach that identifies and accepts that completely abstaining from drugs and alcohol is not a realistic solution for everyone, and instead, includes a variety of policies, programs, and practices to combat the consequences of drug use.

There are health, social, and economic consequences that impact all who are involved with drug and alcohol use, and harm reduction is aimed to help minimize the effects.

Several examples of the harm reduction model of alcohol & drug treatment include:
• Needle exchange programs
• Safe use spaces
• Overdose prevention training
• Drinking behavior management
• Opioid substitution therapy

There has been great success linked to these programs and strategies in reducing the negative impacts of drug and alcohol use.

It’s important to understand that addiction is a disease and that it affects everyone differently, which means that the road to recovery might not look the same for each person who struggles with addiction.

Harm reduction methods paired with recovery programs whose goals are abstinence can work in combination to help bring people to a life free from addiction. To learn more about the programs we offer at United Recovery Project, visit our treatments page.

Please contact us today if you or a loved one is suffering from addiction and need help.