If you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, you may wonder what role aftercare programs and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) play in your recovery. Learn about various types of addiction support groups, how effective they are, and what options you have for mutual support groups to aid you in your recovery.
What Are Support Groups?
Mutual help or self-help groups are designed as programs for people to provide mutual support to each other. They are usually free, anonymous, and run by peers. As they relate to addiction treatment, these types of groups can help support a person’s sobriety and create a safe environment for them to connect with others in recovery.1,2
Keep in mind that mutual support groups are not considered professional rehab but can complement prior or ongoing treatment and can be held in a variety of settings.1,3 Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery) are the most common ones; however, there are a variety of other options available based on your individual needs.1
What’s the Evidence Behind Support Groups?
The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) endorses 12-step programs like AA as an important component of ongoing recovery, citing the value of community for people in recovery among other factors.4
As of 2018, more than 1.2 million people are members of an AA group in the United States alone.5 However, it is difficult to perform outcome studies on mutual support groups because they are often anonymous and there are generally no records kept.
Due to how long it’s been around, its size and influence, most of the research on mutual help support groups has been focused mostly on Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups for addiction.2 One study found that after 1 year, around 61% of people who attended 5 or more weekly AA meetings were abstinent from alcohol use, compared to only 21% of those who did not attend any AA meetings.1
Another study found that individuals who attended both formal treatment and AA were more likely than those who only participated in rehab to be abstinent at the 1- and 3-year follow-up mark.2 Whether a person chooses to enter a support group or is required to may also impact outcomes.6
How Do I Start Treatment?
Principles of Peer Support Groups
Mutual aid, or peer support, groups typically have a set of stated principles. The primary principle is that recovery should be the main focus for an individual.3 Another central principle is that person who is in recovery also has a commitment to help others in their recovery.3
Further, a key tenet of peer groups is that you meet people where they are in recovery, and provide support based on strengths.3 In addition, involvement in a community of others in recovery is critical to ongoing recovery, and everyone should be an active and involved participant in a group.3
Benefits of Support Groups in Recovery
Support groups create a sense of community. In addition to increasing rates of abstinence from alcohol, some studies show support from peers positively influences the participants’ perception of stress, provides more overall support, and greater quality of life.3
In addition, a recent study reports the long-term benefits of support groups:3,7
- Reduced rate of relapse
- Increased satisfaction with the overall treatment experience
- Increased treatment retention
- Improved relationships with family, friends, and co-workers
Because one of the underlying premises of recovery is hope, seeing people who have made the journey into long-term recovery inspires others who are beginning their own journey to recovery.6
Type of Support Groups for Addiction
There are many types of groups available, such as AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which apply the 12-step principles and are based on spirituality, or the concept of a Higher Power.5 While these groups are the most common, some individuals may feel uncomfortable with the emphasis on the spiritual approach of these 12-step groups. Because of this, those looking for peer support groups can attend alternatives to AA such as the below:8
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), which is a mutual-help group that addresses a variety of addictions, including eating disorders and drug addiction. SOS emphasizes personal empowerment, eschews the concept of a Higher Power, and does not include spirituality as part of the group process. If you want to find an SOS meeting, they have a search page to find meetings in your area.
- SMART Recovery, which emphasizes evidence-based practices for the treatment of substance use disorders. This group does not endorse any type of Higher Power or spiritual beliefs as part of the support that is offered. SMART Recovery also views addiction as a treatable issue that can be resolved, and not as a chronic, life-long disease and does not use labels like addict or alcoholic. However, SMART Recovery welcomes people who also attend NA or AA.
- LifeRing is another secular recovery support group that emphasizes a secular approach, sobriety, and self-help in a safe environment. Relatively unstructured, LifeRing attendees discuss what has gone on the previous week and at times focus on creating a personal recovery plan.
- Women for Sobriety welcomes all expressions of female identity. The program is based on 13 statements that encourage growth, both emotionally and spiritually. Although daily meditation is suggested, there is no emphasis on God or a Higher Power.
There are a wide variety of mutual support programs available that offer different venues, locations and times of day to help you be successful on your path to recovery.
. U.S. Department of Government Affairs. (2020, September 27). Recovery oriented mutual self-help groups.
. Kelly, J. F., & Yeterian, J. D. (2011). The role of mutual-help groups in extending the framework of treatment. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 33(4), 350–355.
. Reif, S., Braude, L., Lyman, D. R., Dougherty, R. H., Daniels, A. S., Ghose, S. S., et. al. (2014, July). Peer recovery support for individuals with substance use disorders: Assessing the evidence. Psychiatric Services, 65(7), 853-861.
. Miller, M. (2015, February 3). The relevance of 12-step recovery in 21st century addiction medicine.
. General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous. (2018). A.A. Fact File.
. Kownacki, R.J, & Shadish, W.R. (1999). Does Alcoholics Anonymous work: the results from a meta-analysis of controlled experiments. Substance Use and Misuse, 34(13): 1897-1916.
. Tracy, K., & Wallace, S. P. (2016, September 29). Benefits of peer support groups in the treatment of addiction. Substance abuse and rehabilitation, 7, 143–154.
. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2008). An Introduction to Mutual Support Groups for Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Substance Abuse in Brief Fact Sheet, Volume 5, Issue 1. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.