Managed alcohol programs can save lives: Regina report

To some, giving alcohol to an alcoholic may seem counterintuitive — but that approach can be life-saving, say community groups in Regina that have reviewed research on how housing-first initiatives can work with managed alcohol programs.

Carmichael Outreach, U of Regina and other partners conducted review of research on managed alcohol programs

Rochelle Berenyi and Nicholas Olson were a part of a literature review on Managed Alcohol Programs. (Samanda Brace/CBC News)

To some, giving alcohol to someone struggling with an alcohol addiction may seem counterintuitive. But that approach can be life-saving, according to a new report by several Regina organizations.

The University of Regina's Community Research Unit, Carmichael Outreach and the Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG) all came together to conduct a literature review of research into how housing-first initiatives can work with managed alcohol programs.

Managed alcohol programs, or MAPs, work differently in different areas, but essentially involve giving people with severe alcohol addictions set doses of alcohol throughout the day.

"At the end of the day, it's people that abstinence might not necessarily work for," said Rochelle Berenyi, who is the communications, advocacy and project officer at Carmichael Outreach.

In their review, the groups focused on homeless people and those who use non-beverage alcohol, including things like mouthwash. 

"These are folks that are usually very severely addicted, some that could die if they go through withdrawal, some that are coping with really extreme traumas."

Berenyi acknowledged that there is a risk of harm when providing alcohol, but said that when weighed against other risks, like those that come with drinking non-beverage alcohol, giving an alcoholic a steady dose of alcohol throughout the day can be considered a harm-reduction method.

"Individuals in MAPs experience reduced non-beverage alcohol use, smoother patterns of alcohol consumption that prevent alcohol poisoning and severe intoxication … fewer injuries and improvements in health, personal safety and shelter from cold," along with increased quality of life, the report says.

As well, it says the programs "have been shown to reduce the costs associated with public services such as emergency services, the justice system, and the health-care system" and "decrease the occurrence of public intoxication as they provide a safe place for people experiencing homelessness to consume alcohol."

'Offer them some stability'

The report highlights the fact that people with alcoholism are at a higher risk of being homeless. 

"The idea behind a MAP is to offer them some stability so that they can access and maintain housing as well," said Nicholas Olson, a community volunteer and community advocate at Carmichael Outreach.

He also said that most of the MAPs the group studied were based in permanent supportive housing. 

Berenyi said that the research shows that people involved in a managed alcohol program are more likely to adhere to a medical regimen. 

She said abstinence can work for some people, but if they go back to drinking there can be a lot of shame, which can make them less likely to continue to seek treatment or talk about it. 

"Those that do choose abstinence may feel isolated from their friends and family or from their previous life," she said. 

"At the end of the day, a MAP is kind of there to help create a less judgmental situation."

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition