Prescribed alcohol program in Halifax to add social activities after finding surprising side effect
An evaluation of a harm reduction program that prescribes alcohol to people who have struggled with homelessness in Halifax is showing positive results almost three years on — but it's had a surprising side effect.
Participants were bored.
"They didn't need to spend so much time during the day — like mental energy, physical energy — just trying to make money to purchase the alcohol," Candis Lepage, a Dalhousie University medical student who conducted the evaluation, told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia.
"So their day wasn't really revolving around sourcing it anymore, and that kind of creates a really big gap when you've been doing that for so long."
The Managed Alcohol Program out of the North End Community Health Centre started in June 2020. It administers pre-set daily doses of beer or wine to clients who are homeless and also dependent on alcohol.
The program aims to reduce harm and move people onto a path to stability and away from the cycle of homelessness.
The treatment is one of a range of services offered to those in the program, as well as connection to health services and housing support.
Some of them were actually experiencing a sense of boredom, which is not something we anticipated. - Candis Lepage, Dalhousie University researcher
Lepage said 38 people have participated in the program as of August 2022. Of that number, 12 people were involved in the evaluation process.
"These are individuals who typically spend a large portion of their day engaging in something called survival behaviour, so panning to get money to purchase alcohol," she said.
"And now we've really removed that need so that some of them were actually experiencing a sense of boredom, which is not something we anticipated with the program."
Ashton Stephenson, the health centre's harm reduction manager who oversees the program, said they want to change that by creating more opportunities for social interaction.
"We kind of took that away … now we're talking about ways that we can have programming opportunities for folks and more recreational and leisure opportunities for folks so that they aren't bored all day," he said.
Stephenson said the centre is planning to offer more social activities, like hiking, arts and crafts, music and card games.
Program showing success
Meanwhile, Lepage said information from stakeholders showed the program has been "really successful on multiple fronts."
It reduced over-intoxication, property damage, social conflicts and something called non-beverage alcohol consumption, where individuals would drink hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol.
It also helped improve mental and physical health, and some participants chose to try sobriety.
"The goal isn't necessarily sobriety. The goal is to make sure everybody's safe," Stephenson said.
"Make sure people aren't being robbed to get an alcohol dose. Make sure people aren't drinking things that shouldn't be consumed just to get a buzz. Making sure people can still connect with their health-care workers and their health-care providers while battling their addiction issues."
The health centre's managed alcohol program is the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada.
Stephen said he hopes this approach to harm reduction continues to grow, despite the stigma around "enabling and giving people alcohol every day."
"More people need to understand that people are going to drink regardless and a lot of these people, previously to our program, weren't connecting with anybody," he said.
"They were just harming themselves and harming people in the community and getting their dose day after day. So with more programs like this, it just gives people an opportunity to explore more options."
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