Root Medicine: Psychotherapy Harm Reduction

Published on:
January 20, 2023

Andrew Tatarsky, founder of the Center for Optimal Living, joined us on Root Medicine to give a valuable perspective on the evolution of the psychotherapy recovery model. 

When Tatarsky first began his career in the field of addiction and psychotherapy, the field  was void of the level of empathy and autonomy clients are given today. The approach to treatment was based on addiction being a disease. Abstinence was the only way people were encouraged to proceed with treatment. Complete and total abstinence. Although this was almost forty years ago, the abstinence-only model still appears as the “right” way to many outsiders. 

Since addiction was viewed as a disease in the abstinence-only field, many practitioners were very “authoritarian” on how they would provide help for those in need. People were turned away for continuing to use substances, labeling seekers as “not ready” although they were actively seeking support. Tatarsky would see that many who were starting the program “abstinent,” would be dissuaded and not complete the program because of the stigma and judgment. It was not working, and it was also contributing to the trauma of those seeking help. 

“A treatment is traumatic when it winds up significantly hurting the person that’s seeking help.”

Andrew Tatarsky funded the Center for Optimal Living in order to circumvent this trauma that many clients were running into while looking for help. He wanted to actively avoid this choice that prior practitioners were forcing clients to make. Either “submit” to their singular path of recovery, or “rebel,” both which disconnect people from themselves and their truth. No longer would abstinence be the only way for people seeking healing from addictions. It was time to go against convention, and humanize addiction. 

Harm reduction psychotherapy was birthed from the harm reduction model which became popular in Europe during the AIDS crisis. More quickly than in the US, programs arose because it became clear that simply asking users to refrain from using drugs was not going to help. It was not so simple. Alan Marlatt and Edith Springer brought back the harm reduction model to the US in the 1990s, inspiring Tatarsky to “meet people where they are.” 

Integrating harm reduction with psychotherapy has been so important to work with clients and meet them where they are  and on their own terms.” 

Each of us is an expert in our own experience.” 

Letting people shape their own recovery path and empowering them to take the lead can make a huge difference in treating and getting to the core of the problem. Even with total abstinence not being the main goal at the start of treatment, clients could find that path on their own. Andrew Tatarsky’s method of harm reduction psychotherapy is about helping people figure out a way out from their trauma. It asks the question of whether it’s possible to find a healthier relationship with the substance. Drawing connections between problematic use and life issues brings awareness to these connections. 

As a society, Andrew feels it needs to be stressed that there are multiple recovery pathways, and that is also one of Beond’s goals.

Listen here.

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