Harm Reduction and Abstinence Recovery

Harm Reduction and Abstinence Recovery

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Two of the most popular forms of addiction treatment are harm reduction and abstinence recovery. Each of these methods has benefits and downsides. It is important to remember that no single approach will work to treat every person. 

Addiction is one of the most common and most deadly diseases facing Americans today. According to a report from the Center on Addiction[1], over 40 million Americans meet the criteria for addiction— more than the number of people who are suffering from heart conditions, diabetes, or cancer. Shockingly, only 10% of those people seek help for their addictions, and fewer still can fully maintain recovery. Our mission at Ocean Hills Recovery is to help anyone who is suffering from an addiction fully recover and build a life free from the chains of addiction. Every addiction is different, and every person requires a personally tailored approach to treating their disease.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is a relatively new method of treating addiction[2] and is not widely accepted quite yet. In harm reduction, individuals are encouraged to reduce the harm caused by an addiction, without completely abstaining from their substance of choice. The idea of harm reduction began in the 1980s when the government started providing clean needles to users to combat the growing HIV epidemic. The idea is that instead of quitting a behavior entirely, one should learn how to manage their usage. They should learn to lower it so that it does not harm their health, relationships, or other aspects of their lives. Examples of harm reduction include methadone and suboxone use. These medications are a safer way for former heroin users to get the ‘fix’ their body craves but also provides a safer alternative.

Sam Nugraha, the owner of a rehab center in Indonesia[3], wholeheartedly believes in the harm reduction method. Sam recovered from his addiction using the abstinence method. He believes that harm reduction removes much of the shame surrounding relapse, and can save lives. Most individuals, unfortunately, relapse at some point during recovery. Nugraha believes that if one can talk to his or her counselor about their relapse and stay in treatment regardless, the likelihood of a patient dying during relapse is lower. The addicted individual will feel more supported and confident that they can still overcome their addiction, and thus are less likely to continue using. Nugraha also believes that every person has different needs and different goals. As long as a patient is still meeting their goal, and can drink responsibly, they should be able to do so.

On the other hand, many people believe that those fighting for sobriety are not able to drink in moderation and that this method is dangerous and harmful. The harm reduction method requires a person who has a history of an inability to control his drinking, to suddenly be able to control his drinking. For many, this won’t work, especially for highly addictive substances, such as heroin or other opioids.

What is Abstinence Recovery?

With abstinence recovery, a patient decides to stop abusing their drug of choice altogether. Many people follow a 12-step program (like AA) to achieve long-term abstinence. There are other options during recovery, as well. In a clinical setting during abstinence recovery, individuals undergo intensive therapy and counseling to find and treat the root cause of their addiction. They work to accept themselves as they are, and admit that they do not have control over their addiction. Many people have had the most success when they can deal with trauma and mental health disorders that often accompany addiction. In addition to individual therapy, most patients find that group therapy is also a huge help in overcoming addiction. Learning from others is an essential component of the abstinence recovery method.

The addiction specialists at Ocean Hills Recovery believe that abstinence is the best way to prevent relapse and future substance abuse truly. They seek to get to the root of the issue to heal patients from the inside out.

Harm Reduction and Abstinence Recovery

Is one method better than the other? The answer lies within the individual. The general rule of thumb is that harm reduction is reserved for people who are considered ‘problem drinkers’ and who have not yet felt the damaging effects of alcoholism. Some people also believe that addiction to more deadly substances, like heroin, should be avoided altogether and that abstinence is the best method in those cases. Whether or not an alcoholic can properly heal and begin to drink in moderation is up to the individual. If a person has a history of drinking excessively, why risk the chance of the problem worsening? Why not just abstain altogether?

At Ocean Hills Recovery, we work with those who are suffering from addiction to heal— mind, body, and spirit. We take a holistic approach to health and wellness. We believe that life-long substance abstinence is possible. We work diligently to create a welcoming, judgment-free atmosphere. Our compassionate staff strives to meet the individual where they are at in life and to begin working towards a brighter future right away. While we do believe that abstinence recovery is the best method for most substance abuse patients, we are also aware of the high rate of relapse. We work with each of our patients so that they feel confident in their ability to leave recovery and live without addiction. If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, please reach out to the professionals at Ocean Hills Recovery today.


[1] https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/addiction-medicine-closing-gap-between-science-and-practice

[2] https://harmreduction.org/about-us/principles-of-harm-reduction/

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/05/16/723582467/why-an-indonesian-rehab-center-doesnt-insist-on-abstinence

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