Support Groups and 12-Step Programs
Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I'm an alcoholic.
All of us have heard this type of statement, if not in our own experience then through popular media portrayals of recovery groups. Support groups and 12-step programs are integral parts of the process of recovery from substance abuse for many people around the world.
Types of Recovery Groups
Two of the most well-known 12-step programs for addiction are:
- Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA").
- Narcotics Anonymous ("NA").
Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) is another approach that uses the in-person meeting format, but also uses various online groups to assist in recovery. SMART puts an emphasis on teaching practical skills and developing a sense of empowerment in dealing with one’s addiction. It encourages individuals to determine the level of alcohol or drug consumption that works for them, whether that means total abstinence or skillful moderation.
The Secular Organizations for Sobriety ("SOS") provides a supportive environment for recovery, but SOS differs from traditional addiction support groups in that sponsor relationships are not utilized. They also do not incorporate spirituality or the 12 steps into their programs.
Another program is Rational Recovery (RR), which does not use the group approach at all but instead emphasizes self-management. Also, the RR approach does not identify addiction as a disease. RR promotes the idea that an individual responsibility and not a group responsibility. Participants work online to learn new ways of abstaining from using drugs and/or alcohol.
What Are the Benefits
If you work it, it works.
One of the mottos of NA and AA is, "If you work it, it works." There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the positive benefits of these programs. Additionally, formal research indicates that 12-step programs do work for many people.
One of the most comprehensive studies of literature to date indicated that ongoing and consistent participation in a 12-step program was associated with better outcomes in regards to abstinence from substance use. According to the study, the 12-step program(s) worked just as well for seniors, women, and court-mandated participants as it did for younger addicts, men, and voluntary participants. (Florentine, R. & Hillhouse, M., 2000).
Although NA and AA emphasize "God" as a component of the recovery process, there was no meaningful difference in outcomes for those who identified themselves as non-religious.
Recovery groups help people feel a sense of community and support — these are essential components to the process of overcoming addiction. Working a 12-step program can also give a person's life the needed structure to help him avoid the temptation of alcohol and drugs.
12-Step Programs as a Part of Treatment
The incorporation of the 12-step model in rehab introduces recovering persons to Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous and encourages them to keep going to meetings as part of aftercare and continued sobriety. This is essential because recovery efforts don’t end when rehab ends – aftercare and support from others are key elements of successful recovery in the long term.
Where Can I Find a Recovery Group?
These support groups can be found in almost every community in the United States, with larger cities offering numerous opportunities to participate at various places and multiple times in any given day.
- To find an AA meeting, go to the program website, aa.org.
- Information on NA meetings can be found at na.org.
- SMART recovery information is available at smartrecovery.org.
- Local newspapers also carry listing for local support groups. Meetings are often held in churches and community centers.
AA and NA are free. The requirements are simple and straightforward. The only requirement to participate is a desire to stop using.
Find Meetings Near You
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have to do a 12-step program?
No. There are other groups, such as SOS, Rational Recovery, and SMART Recovery, which are programs that are not based on the 12-step model.
Do I have to be religious to participate?
Some individuals seeking support for recovery are resistant to joining 12-step groups because they emphasize spirituality and a belief in a Higher Power as an integral part of the process. The idea of a Higher Power meets with resistance for some people who do not believe in the concept of "God" and who want to approach recovery from a more secular standpoint.
It is important to understand that “Higher Power” is left open to individual interpretation and does not need to align with anyone else’s beliefs. However, for those still uncomfortable with the spiritual aspect, other groups, such as SMART and Rational Recovery, have been established that do make this a requirement.
What is a sponsor? Do I have to have one?
People who are seeking recovery often wonder about sponsors, as the term is often heard in the 12-step context. Essentially, a sponsor is someone who has been abstinent for some time and is willing and able to support another member as they begin to participate in the recovery process. It is an integral part of the 12-step model. You should take your time to decide who you want to ask to sponsor you, to ensure that you have the right sponsor.
It is not mandatory that you pick a sponsor, but it is very difficult to work the 12-step model without having a sponsor. Not all recovery groups involve sponsors, such as SOS and the SMART model.
Can people come with me to meetings?
Often, people have fears about walking into meetings alone and want to know if bringing someone along for support is acceptable. As long as a meeting is "open", meaning that anyone can attend, it is fine to bring someone with you.
Do I have to speak at meetings?
Most people have seen enough portrayals of a 12-step recovery group to know that sharing is a focus of these meetings. Some potential group participants may worry that they have to speak at meetings or will be called upon to talk. Members are encouraged to talk about their struggles, but it is not required for anyone to ever speak at a meeting, and no one is ever placed on the spot and called upon to speak.
Are there support groups for family members and friends of addicts?
Oftentimes people seek information about rehab programs and support groups for their friends and family. In this process of seeking help for a loved one, they may feel a desire to reach out to other people who are going through the same experience of coping with someone else's drug and alcohol issues.
There are numerous support groups for friends and family members of persons who are struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Al-Anon and Alateen are the two best known of these groups. They provide a supportive environment to help the non-using family member or friend to understand what to expect and how to cope during the time of active addiction, as well as in the process of recovery.
Additional information can be found at www.al-anon.alateen.org.
Do I have to go every week?
There is no requirement or set number of meetings, and it is up to the individual. However, more frequent attendance does help an individual maintain sobriety more consistently than infrequently attending meetings.
Are there programs for teens?
SMART recovery has a program designed for teenagers with meetings, as well as online support groups, and workbooks especially written for teenagers. Other existing programs include the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) and Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET). A list of evidenced-based adolescent programs can be found here:
AA and NA will frequently have teen-specific meetings listed in the directory of meetings in a community. However, it is common to see adolescents attending meetings in NA and AA with adults. The important thing is to start somewhere. Whether you are seeking help for yourself or a family member, it is important to at least start with researching the various groups and outlets that are available.
AA or NA may not be right for everyone, but, as noted above, there are several alternatives available for getting back on track to recovery. It may take some trial and error to find the right fit, but the evidence is strong that recovery with support is more likely to be successful than trying to do it alone.
- Fiorentine R, Hillhouse M. Drug Treatment. 12-step Program Participation: The Additive Effects of Integrated Recovery Activities. J of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2000; 18(1):65–74; see also Kaskutas L, Bond J, Humphreys K. Social Networks as Mediators of the Effect of Alcoholics Anonymous Addiction. 2002; 97 (7):891–900; see also Project MATCH Research Group. Matching Alcoholism Treatment to Client Heterogeneity: Project MATCH Post Treatment Drinking Outcomes. J of Studies on Alcohol. 1997; 58:7–29;
- Moos, R., & Timko, C. Outcome Research on Twelve-Step and Other Self-Help Programs. In M. Galanter and H.D. Kleber (Eds.) The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Substance Abuse Treatment.