People who are in recovery for a substance use disorder or some other type of addiction, such as a compulsive gambling issue, often turn to recovery support groups for help in both short-term and long-term recovery. Recovery support groups are forms of social support; they are not formal treatment programs. This is because most of these groups do not employ the services of professional and licensed therapists or other treatment providers but are instead comprised of other individuals in recovery who have the same or similar issues. The members meet to discuss their recovery and to help and support each other.
These groups offer a number of advantages.
- They are extremely strong sources of peer support.
- Many of these groups offer a very structured program of recovery for individuals to follow.
- Different types of meetings can address specific groups or issues.
- Flexible schedules and numerous meeting times and places make these groups accessible to a majority of people.
- The groups are ongoing and offer the opportunity to engage in a support program long after formal treatment has been completed.
- The groups are inexpensive or often free, as many are supported by donations.
When choosing a recovery support group, it is important to keep the above advantages in mind and choose a group that maximizes these given one’s personal convictions, beliefs, and needs. Several considerations should be taken into account regarding the type of support group one chooses.
- What are your personal beliefs on religion and spirituality? A number of recovery support groups have a strong religious or spiritual component to them. Some individuals who have strong feelings that are opposed to religion or spirituality may not find these groups palpable.
- What is your concept of addiction? Many recovery support groups are based on a concept of the addict as being powerless over their addiction. If one does not fully embrace this concept, some of these groups may not be appropriate.
- Do you favor a science-based approach? Certain groups follow a more empirically based/science-based approach to recovery.
- Do you prefer meeting with groups of the same gender or overall background? Some group cater to particular demographics whereas others are more general.
- What is your schedule like? Certain support groups are more available and offer more scheduling options than others.
- Would you prefer actual physical contact with the group, or you comfortable with an online group? Many programs offer numerous online meetings.
The goal is to maximize the benefits of the support group by choosing one that is a good fit. This is not to say that an individual should not attempt to explore different options, such as groups with different philosophies regarding the existence of a higher power (e.g. God or some other power), spirituality, science-based approaches, etc. However, in the end, the group is of no use to a person if the person does not attend. Attending groups that are in sharp contrast to one’s ethics or level of comfort will most likely not be productive.
By far, the most common form of recovery support group is the 12-Step format, and the best known of the 12-Step groups is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is not the only 12-Step group available, but it was the original, and its format is the one that is generally followed at all 12-Step groups. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), all 12-Step groups followed three general principles:
- Principle of acceptance: In this context, acceptance includes the notion that one realizes that addiction is a chronic and progressive disease over which one has no control. Central to this notion is the idea that addiction has resulted in life becoming unmanageable, and that willpower alone is not able to solve the problem with addiction. Members accept the fact that they are powerless to change their addictive behavior by themselves and that complete abstinence is the only real solution.
- Principle of surrender: 12-Step groups maintain that the person in recovery must give themselves over to a higher power in order to achieve sobriety. Recovering individuals must accept the fellowship and support of others in recovery and follow the 12-Step program. The 12-Step program is an active approach to dealing with addiction. In addition, members are encouraged to get a sponsor, an individual with extensive experience in the program and with a history of recovery, and confide in the sponsor as they negotiate through the program.
- Principle of continued involvement in meetings: Members are encouraged to attend meetings on a regular basis and to maintain their attendance over the course of their lifetime. A major contributor to relapse according to this principle is failing to attend 12-Step group meetings.
Empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of 12-Step programs is mixed, and a number of sources point to their deficiencies as evidence that they are not empirically sound programs. Nonetheless, a large number of individuals who attend these programs swear by the results. These recovery support groups do offer an important source of peer support and direction for individuals in recovery.
A number of different types of 12-Step groups focused at specific issues exist, including:
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is primarily focused on alcohol abuse, but since it is the most available 12-Step group throughout the country, it is not uncommon for groups to contain a mix of individuals with different types of addictions.
- Cocaine Anonymous (CA) is primarily focused on members who have issues with cocaine abuse.
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is primary focused on abuse of prescription drugs, particularly opioid drugs. Heroin Anonymous is a group that is primary focused on abuse of heroin.
- Marijuana Anonymous (MA) is focused on issues with cannabis abuse.
- Al-Anon and Alateen are groups that are available for the relatives of individuals with addictions.
- There are number of other specially 12-Step groups available. Individuals can check for the availability of meetings in a specific area, or they can attend a meeting that is similar to the type of issue they are dealing with (e.g., attending a NA meeting for heroin abuse or simply attending a meeting for any type of addiction).
In addition, there are a number of 12-Step programs that are available online. While these groups have a specific agenda and program to follow, there are many members who regularly attend these groups strictly for the support aspect of the meetings and do not get a sponsor.
12-Step meetings often follow a specific format and have specific opening and closing rituals that include prayers. The meetings typically run for about an hour, although the time can be variable depending on what happens in the meeting.
Groups are generally supported by donations. Most individuals donate $1 per meeting; however, donations are not required, and people who do not donate are not singled out in any manner. These programs also provide literature for members and prospective members, which is reasonably priced.
12-Step group meetings are categorized in the following way:
- Closed meetings: open only to people with a specific problem the group addresses or with a general desire to stop some addictive behavior
- Open meetings: open to anyone who wishes to attend and generally feature speakers
- Specialty closed meetings: open to a specific demographic, such as a specific gender or people in a specific occupation
Non-12-Step Recovery Groups
12-Step groups are the most common recovery support groups available; however, there are options for individuals who are not interested in this form. These include:
- SMART: Self-Management for Addiction Recovery Training (SMART) is a science-based program of recovery based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The program offers meetings in some areas, online meetings, and even a self-instructional program and the opportunity to organize meetings. The philosophy of the program is not based on spirituality or any religious doctrine but instead on empirically based therapeutic methods and teaching skills. Program availability is far more limited than with 12-Step groups, but again, anyone can form a chapter or participate online.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery International: This recovery support group has over 100 groups online, and a few groups may meet in person locally. The program is based on empirical principles and a mix of other principles, and it does not include a religious or spiritual component. The group offers a number of supports and sources, and it is not affiliated with any other organization. The groups are led by volunteers.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety: This program does not follow a 12-Step program. It is another program that does not focus on a higher power or the notion of God as part of its format. These groups focus on frank discussions about issues in recovery and concentrate on support for members.
- 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment: This group offers a holistic approach for overcoming issues with addictive behavior. There is a spiritual aspect, but it is not generally focused on religion but more on Eastern philosophy. In addition, the core of the program is to be flexible and determine what works for the specific individual. Like 12-Step programs, there is a suggested format to follow; however, it is much less structured and rigid.
- Women for Sobriety: Targeted specifically at women’s issues with addiction, these groups emphasize empowerment, sharing, and openness among the members. Women attending these meetings should expect strong support and issues focused at practicality.
- Other options: Specific types of recovery support groups may be available through community mental health centers or at hospitals in the area. One can check local newspapers or with a local community mental health center regarding the availability of these types of groups. In addition, individuals may start their own group. This can be accomplished through some national organizations, such as the ones mentioned above, or through local community groups, such as a community mental health center.
A number of recovery support group options are available in most major urban areas. Choosing a recovery support group that one will attend on a regular basis is the most important consideration, as the major benefit these groups provide is pure support. Other considerations can be made based on the availability of support groups in a particular area. Many groups now offer online meetings, offering increased accessibility to potential members.