Work Hard, Party Hard: Harm Reduction in a Post-secondary Setting

In response to significant increases in reported mental health problems among post-secondary students and rises in the demand for mental health services over the past several years, this qualitative study examined the viability of a harm reduction model in the post-secondary context. The researchers held separate focus groups with student leaders, service providers, and administrators at McGill University, and found four key themes within the experiences of those participants.

Work Hard Party Hard

All three groups identified a strong work-hard-party-hard culture at the university and shared that this normalized combination of high academic pressure with substantial substance use could be particularly risky for students. Participants noted that strict pedagogical practices could be causing stress which contributes to substance use.

Clash of the Titans

A central challenge identified in the focus groups was the tension between different interpretations of the harm reduction model held by students, administrators, and security personnel called to respond in a crisis. It was recognized that students had developed nuanced harm reduction policies and strong networks to support one another, though administrators expressed concern for the level of non-judgment being held by students. The role of institutional risk was also discussed.

Broad Approaches and Band-Aid Solutions

Participants remarked on the broadness with which students were applying the harm reduction philosophy, namely in the areas of mental health and wellness, sexual health and sexual violence, suicide prevention, academic pedagogy, and social relations. At the same time, student leaders also expressed concern that the harm reduction model was not addressing root causes of these issues, suggesting that some harm reduction strategies may be band-aid solutions.

Knowledge Transfer and Privilege

A theme that was brought up by all three groups was the valuable opportunity for knowledge transfer about harm reduction in the post-secondary context, with the use of education, research, collaboration, as well as hiring practices. This contrasted with discussion about the privileged position of students at a prestigious university, and the ways in which this might alter the applicability of the harm reduction model.

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