New Mental Health Finding May Unlock the Secret to 12-Step Success

New research into mental health may explain why the 12-step model for treatment first developed in the 1930s by Alcoholics Anonymous still helps many people find sobriety from drug and alcohol addiction. Studies show, after all, that recovering addicts in 12-step groups are significantly less likely to relapse: those who attend 12-step groups are twice as likely to stay abstinent from drugs, and higher rates of attendance accord with better prospects of long-term sobriety, for example. But such successes have not insulated AA and its 12-step treatment program from a round of bad press lately, as embodied in Gabrielle Glaser’s scathing cover story in The Atlantic this past spring.

Lack of Meaning in Life Linked to Substance Abuse, Depression

Now, thanks to research being conducted virtually down the street from The Recovery Place, at Florida Atlantic University, proponents of AA’s 12 steps may have new ammunition to support their case that the 12-step approach should still be taken seriously as an effective form of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. A team of researchers led by Drs. Gail Horton, PhD, and Naelys Luna, PhD, associate professors at the School of Social Work in the College for Design and Social Inquiry at Florida Atlantic University, recently found that spirituality, and in particular, one component of it — a sense of ultimate meaning in life —is potentially the most important component of mental health. Their study, published in the Journal of Social Service Research, based its findings on a group of test subjects in substance abuse treatment, and concluded that a lack of purpose and meaning in life is associated with alcohol abuse, drug addiction, depression and other mental disorders.

“Attachment” and Other Aspects of 12-Step Spirituality That Foster Sense of Purpose

The study also examined the attachment styles of test subjects. (Like spirituality, attachment styles reportedly have been shown to serve as protective buffers against depression and its symptoms among people in substance abuse treatment.) People with “insecure attachment styles” (who find it harder to form relationships of trust and intimacy) are at higher risk of depressive symptoms, the study concluded. By contrast, greater connectedness to others through service opportunities contributed to a sense of meaning and purpose (and in turn fewer depressive symptoms and better mental health) — as did a regular spiritual discipline of prayer, meditation and solitude. Some of the same opportunities for developing more secure attachments, both with God and with others, are staples of most 12-step groups, according to Jonathan Benz, MS, clinical director of the Christian drug and alcohol rehab program Three Strands at The Recovery Place. Benz, who authored the forthcoming book The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction (InterVarsity Press, January 2016), uses 12-step principles frequently in his work with patients. “AA’s 12-step program emphasizes both a personal spiritual awakening and the importance of, as a result of having had an awakening, serving those around us — and service to others is really what step 12 is all about,” Benz said. “So this latest study from Florida Atlantic University is another confirmation that the 12 steps are effective in treating addiction, precisely because, when practiced, they can provide recovering addicts with a sense of purpose and meaning.”

The Epidemic of Addiction and Mental Illness

Addiction is an epidemic in the United States and around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that by 2020, mental health and substance use disorders will surpass physical illness as the key factors in disability worldwide. The WHO has also reported that mental illness affects one in four people worldwide. Sources:

  • “Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science,” Journal of Addictive Diseases
  • “Lack of ultimate meaning in life associated with alcohol abuse, drug addiction and other mental health problems,” Science Daily
  • “Mental Health: A Call for Action by World Health Ministers,” WHO
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