By: Trevor Gates, LMSW, ACSW
Suppose you are a person who has been struggling with a heroin addiction for the past twenty years. Treatment providers may have written you off as a hopeless cause, a junkie. You have unsuccessfully attempted treatment for your addiction about ten times in the past ten years. Traditional treatment providers have told you that you need to hit “rock bottom.” However, you can’t imagine being more powerless—you’ve lost your home, your family, your career, and everything that you find important.
These are exactly the sort of clients treated by Stiftung Suchthilfe, a harm reduction agency in the City of Saint Gallen, Switzerland. Harm reduction, a traditionally public health strategy, acknowledges that many people may never stop using drugs, and bases its work upon practical strategies to reduce negative consequences of drug use, usually on a continuum from safer use to managed use to abstinence. Stiftung Suchthilfe offers a number of treatment services for people with chemical dependency, including a medical-grade heroin distribution center. People with heroin addictions who have been consistently unsuccessful with treatment receive the tools they need at Stiftung Suchthilfe to reduce some of the harm that they experience by continuing to use heroin. Stiftung Suchthilfe recognizes that some addicts will not—and in many cases cannot—end their addiction. These clients, too, deserve to be safe, to be healthy, and to not be written off by their treatment providers.
For ten days during January 2009, a group of undergraduate and graduate social work students from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a number of other universities from the United States toured Saint Gallen, Switzerland, in addition to other historic sites in nearby Germany. Dr. Elisabeth Reichert, a professor of social work at SIU who specializes in human rights, leads a group of students twice yearly to Germany, to explore how other countries approach human rights and human dignity. Though certainly not without controversy, harm reduction agencies like Stiftung Suchthilfe represent innovative approaches to helping people live with dignity. Social work students attending the trip learned much about how other countries approach human dignity—and realized that social service delivery in the United States has much opportunity for growth.
Harm Reduction Coalition. (n.d.). Principles of harm reduction. Retrieved January 12, 2009, from http://www.harmreduction.org/article.php?list=type&type=62
Reichert, E. (2006). Understanding human rights: An exercise book. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (2008). Study abroad program in Germany. Retrieved January 12, 2009, from http://www.siu.edu/~socwork/germany/
Stiftung Suchthilfe (2004). Der St. Galler Weg. Retrieved January 12, 2009, from http://www.stiftung-suchthilfe.ch/downloads/DerStGallerWeg2004.pdf
Trevor Gates, LCSW, CADC, is a clinical social worker and chemical dependency counselor who specializes in work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Trevor has been employed as a therapist in medical and behavioral health settings, and has a special commitment to working with people with chronic mental health issues, people affected by HIV/AIDS, and people and families affected by addiction. Trevor is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, Academy of Certified Social Workers, and NAADAC. He lives and practices in Chicago, IL.