RECAP: Youth Harm Reduction Keynote and Panel hosted by Threshold Housing Society
In June 2022, we sponsored a keynote and panel hosted by Threshold Housing Society to highlight harm reduction as a key strategy to save lives and enable progress toward healing and recovery. Harm reduction for youth should be integrated into more programs and supports for young people in Canada, and can be an important housing stabilization strategy to support young people to exit homelessness.
What is harm reduction support for youth?
The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness defines harm reduction as a “humane, client-centered and evidence-based approach to working with people with addictions, and such supports could help people retain their housing; reduce the risk of harm to themselves, the people close to them, and the community; and help them become more engaged with education, training, employment, and other meaningful activities”.
Threshold invited experts, people with lived experience, and researchers to help share knowledge, reduce stigma, and inform discourse on youth harm reduction practices. The panel featured motivational speaker Guy Felicella, Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth from B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, Dr. Bernie Pauly from the University of Victoria, Marlene Stevens from the First Nations Health Authority, and Kim Keats from Island Health Authority. The conversation was moderated by David French from A Way Home Canada.
In Guy Felicella’s opening keynote, he reflects on the difficulties of trying to function in an abusive home, turning to drugs to free himself from the sadness and isolation he felt as a youth growing up in Richmond BC. By the age of 12, Guy had turned to street drugs and by 14, he had been incarcerated in the juvenile detention system becoming a ward of the court. Moving from group home to group home, Guy ended up on the streets of downtown Vancouver where he found comfort in being around people who felt the same pain he did, regardless of circumstances.
What changed the direction of Guy’s life? He told the audience that it was human connection. Guy shared a story of the powerful connection he had with his grandmother who loved him deeply and never gave up on him. “Human connection changes the direction of our lives, to being accepted for who we are as people. To be loved, unjudged and unpunished. To be welcomed”. Harm reduction and recovery go hand in hand with the ultimate goal of supporting people. When people are supported unconditionally and are celebrated for trying, they are motivated to keep trying. This is how harm reduction and recovery work: meeting people where they are, giving them options and supporting them on their journey.
What are the pathways practitioners and community organizations can take to increase support and uptake for youth harm reduction practices?
The panel then shared how a continuing stigma around harm reduction along with a lack of policy change remain as key roadblocks to making harm reduction services more available to youth, and explored what it would take to move the dial to increase access for young people:
Relationships first: The panelists emphasized that youth harm reduction services should serve as relational support for youth. By reframing harm reduction services, practitioners can reduce the stigma around youth substance use. They agreed that the relational emphasis of a harm reduction approach can provide youth with a foundation to support real change in the trajectory of their lives, and that this element of harm reduction should be emphasized.
Youth and Adult harm reduction should be one in the same: Panelists indicated the harm of distinguishing between youth and adult harm reduction services. They highlighted that delineating the two groups only further stigmatizes young substance users. Panelists also emphasized how principles of youth and adult harm reduction services are identical and an integrated service would better support both groups.
Trauma-informed approach is crucial: Aligning youth harm reduction services with a trauma-informed approach protects youth from re-experiencing their traumas to access services. Without a trauma-informed approach, harm reduction services are at risk of enforcing a sense of stigma among youth seeking services.
Integrating youth homelessness services with harm reduction: The panelists discussed that integrating harm reduction and homelessness services for youth would address the simultaneous challenge that many young people too often face.
The panel emphasized the major hurdle facing practitioners is the lack of policy change that promotes youth harm reduction as a standard practice. There’s a continued need for advocacy to government bodies to make policy changes.
The discussion invited the audience to reflect on the history of the laws that have led to stigmatization of substance use and to think critically about the role of substances in supporting young people to manage pain and traumatic life events. A youth harm reduction approach requires us to support youth in a way that honours and respects them.