Do 12-Step Groups Really Work?

12-step groups

I’m frequently asked “Why do I need to go to AA meetings?” “How is a 12-step group going to keep me sober?” Frequently, my response will be “Going to meetings provides accountability. Working the steps helps you change your life. I will often point-out to these skeptics that the word “alcohol” is used only once in the 12-steps. Step one says: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”. How can something that only mentions alcohol once be the solution to treating the condition? How much of what we recommend as counselors is impacted by our own recovery story? Do we recommend 12-step groups because it is best practice, or because we believe it helped to keep us sober?

What the research actually says…

There is a large body of evidence now looking at AA success rates, and the success rate of AA is between 5 and 10 percent. Most people don’t seem to know that because it’s not widely publicized. There are some studies that have claimed to show scientifically that AA is useful. These studies are riddled with scientific errors and they say no more than what we knew to begin with, which is that AA has probably the worst success rate in all of medicine.

Why 12-step groups do work…

The reason that the 5 to 10 percent do well in AA actually doesn’t have to do with the 12 steps themselves; it has to do with the fellowship. It’s a supportive organization with people who share a common problem which lets group members not feel as if they are alone. Seeing others celebrate sobriety “birthdays” instills a feeling of hope and optimism. It shows newcomers that recovery is possible. Socializing and altruism are emphasized. Members are encouraged to develop a network of sober peers and to “give back” to the program through sponsorship and service work.

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