Harm Reduction & High Risk Behaviors

Written by Cathleen Zhang, Marina Knysheva and Maya Correa, ACES Peer Health Educators

As Peer Health Educators specializing in Harm Reduction, I feel like we're best known on campus for promoting safer party culture, and the aspect of reducing harm when it comes to alcohol and drug use. While those are super important aspects of what we do, in the time of COVID-19, we wanted to apply harm reduction to the changes we've all been adjusting to over time. Harm reduction doesn't just apply to drinking water between shots or using contraceptives during sex- it's an umbrella term that applies to any activity, and the steps we can do to make it a little bit safer.

There are everyday things that we can do right now to prevent the spread of infection, and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. For example, wearing a mask over your nose and mouth when you go out for groceries. We know that the large majority of people still have to go out to a grocery store and purchase their own food; that's something that can't be avoided. But we are taking steps reduce the possible harm there by covering our faces, using gloves, and practicing physical distancing.

Staying home whenever possible and using protective gear is reducing harm for all of us. Not only are we making sure that we're practicing healthy habits, but we're also able to reduce harm for those who are immunocompromised, elderly, essential workers, and so on. In our presentations, we mostly talk about the positive effect of harm reduction on oneself: "if I limit the amount of drinks I have one night, then the next morning I might not have a terrible hangover." The incredible thing about practicing harm reduction in the time of COVID is that it positively impacts everyone. So to everyone who's been practicing social distancing, proper hygiene, and helping out the community in whatever ways possible- thank you. We are all healthier because of it.

Looking at High-Risk Behaviors

The impact of COVID-19 can be felt by everyone in various ways. With graduation postponed, highly anticipated events canceled, vacations delayed, jobs lost, and only virtual conversations with loved ones, we might be overwhelmed with the feelings we are experiencing. There is no right or wrong way to feel during the current situation, but sometimes, these feelings can cause us to engage in higher-risk behaviors as a way to gain control over a life we might have quickly lost control of. Some higher-risk behaviors might include increased alcohol and drug use, disordered eating, or violence. To avoid some of the negative impacts that can occur when engaging in these higher-risk behaviors, it’s important to think of some other behaviors or activities we can adopt as we try to navigate the feelings we are experiencing. We must also recognize the impact social media plays in our lives right now. By prioritizing our wellness and self-care, it will be easier to adapt to this new normal life.

Social Media’s Role in Promoting and Preventing Risk Behaviors

The impacts of COVID-19 can be considered stronger because of the presence of social media. As most of our lives have transitioned to the virtual world, it’s easier to spend more time on social media platforms. Social media is a great place to promote positivity, but with recent events, shaming, fake news, and negativity are being spread at an all-time high. This fuels the fire for high-risk behaviors.

We can share something fast and see something fast, but we don’t always think about how a quick action can have a longer-lasting impact. Our social media culture is built on public opinion and sometimes our opinions can cause unintentional harm through shaming. Maybe recently you saw or heard a post that said something like “now you have no excuse, you need to get in shape so you can get a man”, “time to accept the fact that I won’t have my summer body this year”, or  “looks like I’ll just let myself go.” Maybe the message you’ve seen or heard isn’t exactly the same or maybe it’s even more subtle, but the message being shared can cause harm in similar ways. These posts may seem entertaining to some, but in other cases, it can potentially trigger people to feel self-conscious about their appearance, contributing to restrictive eating and other risk behaviors. To take this a step further, we should not be sharing these kinds of messages during our more intimate communication spaces like group chats and zoom meetings for the same reasons.

Social media is also a source for fake news. It’s easy to click the “like” or “share” button without reading the full news article or doing more research. Spreading fake news through social media can do more harm than good, giving people misleading health and wellness information. One example of fake news circulating recently has claimed that racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates are due to weaker genetics in people of color. This is false, promotes blaming, and distracts from the real reasons why these racial disparities exist, giving larger entities more space to ignore and downplay the problem. There’s a saying that goes “nothing about us without us”. We encourage you to include people that are impacted by what is happening in what you share to be a part of the conversation. It is important to mobilize and get the word out but do so with caution. Make sure the information you are sharing is credible, positive, and empowering!

Certain messages on social media are also making many of us feel like we have to be productive every second of the day. However, we should reframe our conversation, realizing that it’s okay to take a break and relax. You do not need to apologize for setting boundaries for yourself. Your value and worth are not based on how productive you are, so it’s okay to step back and enjoy the quiet moments, take in the sunshine, enjoy a good book, or watch your favorite movie.

Taking a Step Back

One way to deal with the array of emotions you might be experiencing is to write them down in a journal. It can become a bit overwhelming when we have so many thoughts and feelings running through our minds, so writing them down somewhere gives us a safe space to express ourselves but also space where we can validate our feelings. If you are feeling creative, make your own journal! Pick your favorite type of paper, grab lots of colored pens, decorate the pages, and let those feelings flow. If journaling is not for you, using apps, such as Headspace or Calm, can help with mindfulness and relaxation. The University of Utah Counseling Center is also a great resource to use, with guided meditations and virtual appointments to aid our campus community in navigating all of the emotions and changes.

Another way to manage overwhelming emotions is to take frequent breaks from our responsibilities and engage in a hobby we love. If you’re bored with your current hobbies, now is a great time to learn something new! Cooking, baking, reading, learning a new instrument, or drawing are just a few options to consider. By engaging in a hobby that makes us happy, we can take a break from the stresses of reality, prioritizing our wellness and self-care. Hobbies can also be a great way to have fun with people virtually. Turn on a Zoom call with a few friends and cook a new dish or try to follow a painting tutorial on YouTube. Regardless of what you do, hobbies are a great coping mechanism during such unpredictable times.


Cathleen is a Sophomore majoring in Economics and Sociology. She is an ACES Peer Health Educator on the Harm Reduction team.




Marina is a senior majoring in Health Promotion & Education. She is an ACES Peer Health Educator on the Harm Reduction team.




Maya is a senior majoring in Health, Society, and Policy. She is an ACES Peer Health Educator on the Harm Reduction team.