The Evidence Is In
In 2006, a headline-grabbing report which collated data from eight studies emerged suggesting the 12-step model for addiction recovery – advanced by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – was no more effective than other recovery approaches. The report concluded with a call for more evidence and further study. Those results are now in.
Released in 2020, a more recent, comprehensive study which collated over 27 studies involving more 10,565 participants has corrected those original findings, concluding that 12-step programs do actually provide a measurable superior chance at recovery.
“Clinically‐delivered 12‐step facilitation interventions designed to increase AA participation usually lead to better outcomes over the subsequent months to years in terms of producing higher rates of continuous abstinence,” the report concluded. “This effect is achieved largely by fostering increased AA participation beyond the end of the Twelve‐Step Facilitation intervention.”
Studies show that addiction treatments tend to result in 15% to 25% of individuals remaining abstinent, though with Alcoholics Anonymous between 22% and 37% of people studied remain abstinent.
“For people already in treatment, if they add AA to it, their outcomes are superior than those who just get treatment without AA,” Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor and co-author of the study, told the New York Times.
For Alyssa Lalor, Clinical Program Director at Sydney’s South Pacific Private, the research is confirmation of the program’s framework and the focus on group therapy and ongoing group participation past the point of discharge. South Pacific incorporates participation with external AA groups into its inpatient rehab program, and encourages continued attendance longer-term. This group-work can bind participants to their recovery, providing social validation, reducing feelings of isolation and encouraging improved relational skills.
“We’re constantly monitoring research and refining our program based on the latest findings, so it’s welcome news to have the 12-step approach backed up by such a prominent study,” Lalor says. “Our experience tells us that maintaining a connection with the recovery community, working through a long-term recovery plan, and incorporating group sessions into that plan are key factors in long-term success.”
“That doesn’t mean AA is for everyone,” she says, “but it’s critically important for all treatment centres to help design an long-term support program for everyone who comes through their doors, and to make sure it’s a plan which works for them.”
“Some of the more complex theories might seem debatable, but when you zoom out, the overall concept of intergenerational trauma is rather obvious,” Lalor says. “If a person has been through severe trauma or is struggling with addiction or mental illness, their ability to parent will be compromised. Their children are less likely to see the modelling of healthy adult behaviour, and they’ll be at a higher risk of challenges stemming from that experience as they progress into their own adulthood.”