Harm Reduction program provides support without judgement

First of two parts about The Harm Reduction program at The North Lambton Community Health Centre.

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The Harm Reduction team is comprised of (From left) social worker Melissa Beer, hepatitis C nurse Kristin Lichty, primary care team lead Lisa Ash, North Lambton Community Health Centre executive director Kathy Bresett and peer support worker Candace King.

The Harm Reduction program at The North Lambton Community Health Centre has been in operation since 2018.

Though their dedicated and caring front line workers help residents in Forest and the surrounding area every day, very little is known about the program operating within North Lambton Community Health Centre.

Harm reduction programs are usually found in urban cities but Kathy Bresett, Executive Director of The North Lambton Community Health Centre pushed for the Forest-based centre to receive funding.  

Harm reduction focuses on helping substance users take proactive measures to reduce social, health and economic harms associated with substance use. 

The outreach team is comprised of a social worker, peer support worker, nurses and an outreach worker who are passionate about helping clients to be as safe and healthy as possible.

Chances are, most will never need the program’s services but for others it can mean the difference between life and death.

The team distributes safe sex supplies, sterile, single-use equipment and naloxone overdose prevention kits, but they do so much more.  

Staff provides referrals to government agencies and assists with finding housing. They also help clients replace lost or stolen identification—a common occurrence among people who don’t have stable housing. 

No one is pushed into entering rehabilitation. Instead, the staff provides important education on safer drug use strategies and ensures that the mental and physical well-being of a client is looked after so that clients feel confident in making positive changes on their own.

Most importantly, there is no judgement.

When someone walks into the centre they are asked: “What are your goals and how can we support you in them?”

Whether their goal is to use safely, prevent an overdose or enter rehabilitation the team helps clients reach the goals they’ve set for themselves and treats them with dignity and respect.

One of the key members of the outreach team is the peer support worker.

Candace King began working as the peer support worker while she was still using. Her lived experience allows her to provide the rest of the team with invaluable and up to date information.

Because she has been where they are, King is often the best and most trusted source of support for clients.

Some people who drop in to the centre never return but others, after speaking with a nurse, a peer support worker or counsellor continue to come back even if it’s just to talk.

For some, it’s the only support system they have.

Kristin Lichty, the program’s Hepatitis C nurse says the stigma surrounding drug use or a bad experience with primary care givers can cause a hesitancy among drug users to seek health care services.

This hesitancy can result in a decline in health and safety. 

“If they’re here and they’re chatting and they know I’m a nurse, that’s a positive healthcare experience,” Lichty says.

The program aims to make people feel as safe and comfortable as possible and allows clients to retain their anonymity so that they can receive help without the fear of stigmatization or embarrassment.

“I think that means a lot to people right at the beginning, before they’ve built that trust with us,” Lichty says.

A frequent misconception is that harm reduction programs enable drug use by providing free supplies to users.

Lichty says that’s not the case.

“We operate with the understanding that knowledge is power. No matter what you’re using or what you do in your life the more you know the better off you are and it allows you to make educated decisions for your own health,” she says.

She says that when people do drop in to get supplies it’s an opportunity for engagement and conversation.

It’s also an opportunity to train people on how to use naloxone so that a life can be saved in the event of an overdose.

The Canadian Mental Health Association website states: “Overdose prevention sites have been known to reduce costs for the health care system, prevent blood borne illnesses such as HIV or Hepatitis C, helps individuals access support services and prevent overdose deaths. In addition, research shows that the existence of an overdose prevention site in a community does not lead to increased crime, and works to decrease public substance consumption.”

The program helps current drug users as well as those who are actively trying to abstain.

Lichty says the program tries “to reach people no matter where they’re at in their journey.”

It also provides counselling, something that Lichty says is “limited” in the county.

People can call in to get counselling with issues they’re struggling with and they don’t have to “speak to 50 people to get us, you can just send us a text.”

The pandemic has made it difficult for people to pick up supplies or get support but the dedicated team continues to do everything they can to reach everyone in the community.

An outreach van delivers supplies to people who can’t come in and King’s peer support drop-in program has temporarily moved online.

The program is still new and there are plans to add more peer support staff in the future.

North Lambton Community Health Centre is a member agency of The Outreach Network.

The harm reduction program is located within the The North Lambton Community Health Centre at 59 King St. West (lower level).

For outreach delivery Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. call or text 226-932-0473

For information about Let’s Be Real virtual drop-in program contact Candace King 519-786-4545

Ontario Overdose Prevention Hotline 24/7 1-888-853-8542 to speak with a volunteer who will stay on the line while you are using and can call 911 in the event of an emergency.