New research finds structured addiction recovery programs help a variety of people including those who do not possess a spiritual belief or suffer from mental illness. Individuals involved in programs that provide social support, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, were more likely to completely abstain from alcohol than people who did not participate in a program.
Alcoholics enrolled in AA and similar programs were also more likely to drink less if they did return to the bottle. And those who attended the most meetings got the most benefit.
“If you don’t go to any, you have the worst outcomes,” said study lead author John Kelly, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Addiction Research Program. “If you go to a few, you have a little bit better outcome, and if you go to a lot, you have an even better outcome.”
The study is among the first to examine the effectiveness of AA-type programs among different types of people.
In the new study, Kelly and a colleague followed 227 alcoholics for up to three years after they left outpatient rehabilitation programs in Boston and Providence, R.I. They report their findings in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
In groups such as AA, participants are urged to believe in a “higher power.” Even so, nonreligious people benefited as much from AA and similar programs as those who were religious, Kelly said. However, the nonreligious were less likely to join the support groups in the first place.
The design of the study didn’t allow the authors to say exactly how much the various types of people drank after taking part in the programs. However, it was clear that men and women benefited equally, as did people with coexisting psychiatric illnesses, Kelly said. And those with the most severe alcoholism were most likely to be participants.
But a comprehensive new review of eight studies from the Cochrane Library found that AA and other 12-step group programs are not more effective than other psychosocial interventions for alcohol dependence. Lead reviewer Marica Ferri suggests that the best choice of treatment depends on the individual participant.
AA and similar programs appear to work by providing “camaraderie and a support structure,” said Aaron White, associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a specialist in addiction. “When you feel like drinking, you have a sponsor, someone in charge of keeping you from doing that. That’s pretty powerful socially.”
Still, success in overcoming alcoholism ultimately comes down to “how badly people want to do it,” White said.
Kelly JF, et al. A 3-year study of addiction mutual-help group participation following intensive outpatient treatment. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 30(8), 2006.