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Do 12-Step Programs Work? | The Research & Evidence

Published on November 2, 2020
women participating in a 12 step support group

Originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) over 70 years ago, the 12-step program is still considered a gold standard for helping people overcome substance use disorders. But, do they actually work for treating addiction?

Fundamental principles of the 12-step program include admitting you have a problem, committing yourself to living a sober life, and coaching others with addiction. 

The Benefits Of Peer-Supported Treatment For Substance Abuse

12-step programs are considered peer-supported programs due to the inclusion of sponsors for each member and the reliance on the group as a whole. 

Research into the advantages of peer-supported programs found that the empathy, respect and rapport underlying peer-supported relationships is preferable and can be more effective over therapy in clinical settings. 

Individuals responding to questionnaires regarding their experience in 12-step programs say they felt respected and listened to by their mentors and peers.

Shared Experience

Researchers have also discovered the main reason why peer-supported programs are so effective—working with a mentor who has had similar experiences with addiction. 

Other studies also reaffirm the conclusion that sharing similar experiences, emotions, and beliefs with peers is a powerful incentive for those struggling with addiction, motivating them to develop better self-esteem, a sense of self-autonomy and, most importantly, sobriety.

A Comprehensive Review Of 12-Step Programs

A comprehensive review of the Cochrane Drugs and Alcohol Group Specialized Register is one the most thorough evaluations of outcomes involving people with addiction who entered a 12-step program. 

Researchers gathered results of controlled trials comparing Alcoholics Anonymous with evidence-based treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy. 

Key takeaways of the review include:

  • AA improved continuous abstinence rates (12 months) compared to cognitive behavioral therapy only
  • AA/12-step performed as well as clinical interventions at 12 months and even better in the long-term (24 months)
  • evidence supporting the efficacy of AA is “high quality” and strongly suggests AA offers numerous benefits over clinical intervention for alcohol use disorder
  • AA provides “substantial savings on healthcare costs” compared to clinical treatment

12-Step Programs Vs. Residential Treatment

A 2020 study published in Nursing and Health Sciences compared one group of adults entering a 12-step program to another group entering a residential center for treatment. 

Both subject groups were given a health survey questionnaire to evaluate their quality of life after completing both programs. 

Individuals participating in the 12-step program reported significant improvement in all aspects of their lives. Two aspects—emotional problems and physical functioning—did not appear as improvements on surveys completed by the residential treatment group. 

What’s more, the mental health and quality of life of the 12-step participants lasted well beyond the length of the program, suggesting that the principles of the 12-steps improved daily life.

What To Expect From A 12-Step Program

Understanding why 12-step programs are effective at helping people defeat addiction means understanding how a 12-step program impacts someone’s life in recovery. 

Fundamental principles of 12-step programs include:

  • acknowledging you have a substance use disorder
  • admitting you need and want help to achieve sobriety
  • accepting the importance of relying on other program participants
  • recognizing that strengthening your ability to achieve sobriety will be a repetitive, difficult process that does not end after completing all 12-steps
  • focusing solely on the objective of a 12-step program—attaining and maintaining sobriety

New members of 12-step programs must also find someone in their group who will be their mentor throughout their recovery. This sponsor is the person who will always be there if you find yourself in a situation that might trigger a relapse. 

Sponsors are always individuals who have completed a 12-step program themselves and achieved long-term abstinence.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please call Ark Behavioral Health today to learn more about how we value and use the 12-step model of recovery.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.
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