Substance abuse and drug-related deaths are nuanced experiences. But discussions surrounding them are often chalked up to a tragedy rather than a problem worth engaging with. Their controversial nature remains heavily stigmatized, however, it affects both the public and personal lives of all U.S. citizens, Tompkins County residents and Ithaca College students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the amount of opioid use and drug-related deaths across the U.S. and in our local surroundings — investing in understanding this crisis is needed now more than ever. Ithaca College has taken action by implementing educational opportunities: partnering with the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP), opioid overdose prevention trainings are being held for the entirety of the campus community to benefit from.
The messaging here aims to create a community that supports one another. Naïveté surrounding substance use happening on campus is harmful. Being prepared to address the signs of alcohol poisoning or react to an overdose by knowing how to properly administer naloxone is not only helpful but lifesaving. These techniques and knowledge base are an alternative method to abstinence. Enter: harm reduction.
Sheila P. Vakharia, deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance, defines harm reduction as a set of compassionate and pragmatic approaches for reducing harm associated with high–risk behaviors.
“Harm reduction approaches are working with people where they’re at, and oftentimes people are still using drugs, so we look for ways to help keep the user stay safe and stay alive by making sure they have sterile syringes, we make sure they have naloxone while also advocating for safer consumption spaces,” Vakharia said.
Harm reduction techniques focus on the merit of the people — who deserve respect and understanding — as opposed to the substances they are using. These techniques are proven to be effective in encouraging safety and recovery and are necessary for decreasing the social stigma that surrounds drug use.
Kim Conrad, harm reduction site coordinator for the Western Region at STAP, acknowledges harms associated with illegal drug use move beyond the substance themselves — dehumanization of the user is where we fail as a society.
“That human connection is a huge part of what makes harm reduction work,” Conrad said. “Stopping drug use is a great goal to have, but there are ways to help people stay safe that’s going to lead to some real benefits for themselves and society at large.”
These training sessions are essential to our education at the college and offer students a humane lense to approaching life outside of campus.