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  • The Shift Change Podcast .

Episode 9: Harm Reduction

Harm Reduction is not a new idea for nursing. Nurses regularly integrate the principles of reducing the harms of many human behaviours to help people maintain their health and quality of life. Strategies like seat belts in cars, lifeguards at the swimming pool, wearing a helmet when riding a bike, and using condoms for safer sex are all well-accepted practices. So what makes harm reduction for substance use so different?


Substances are not new. Human beings have used psychoactive substances for as long as we can trace human history. The central principle of harm reduction is the recognition that some substance use within any society is normal, meaning there will always be some people using some substances for various purposes. This goal is relevant to individuals using drugs, but also to entire societies, because we need to change the way we view substances. While some cultures and subcultural groups accept substance use and integrate it into cultural and spiritual practices, some do not. Canada is only of those countries that has a history of criminalizing and punishing those who use substances. In Canada substance use, especially use of illegal substances, are framed as morally wrong. The result? Stigmatizing those individuals who choose to engage in their use with less focus on the reasons for substance use. The solution? Harm Reduction.


The goal of reducing stigma involves actively countering social exclusion and stigma of substance use and substance users. Further, work towards this goal places an emphasis on promoting and supporting community mobilization, as seen in organizations like VANDU. The individual drug user is able to become part of a community that plays an important role in turning drug use and substance use issues into a public health issue.


As nurses we have an ethical and professional obligation to understand and integrate harm reduction into our day to day practice. Join us this month as Claire and Michelle chat with Sheryl, a harm reduction nurse who works in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside.


About Sheryl


Sheryl is a mental health and substance use nurse and has been practicing in Vancouver, BC, for the last 21 years and has experience in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Emergency Department Mental Health Triage, Community Forensics, and is now practicing in the DTES.

She is currently pursuing her Masters in Health Leadership and Policy with a focus on Clinical Education. Her current area of research is the effects of mindfulness on the burnout levels of nurses, and she aspires to help develop programs for nurses that focus on resilience and self-care. Sheryl’s lifelong goal is to continue to learn and re-learn what it means to be an effective nurse and happy human and convey that impactful nursing isn’t just about clinical skills but also a love for oneself, clients and the community.




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