All Substance Abusers Benefit From AA, Study Finds

Posted on February 3rd, 2015

People affected by drug or medication addiction may be able to gain important help from participation in Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step, mutual help program that focuses on drug/medication-related issues. However, not all people have ready access to this program in their area. In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from Harvard University-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital sought to determine if people who would normally seek out participation in Narcotics Anonymous benefit sufficiently from participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, another 12-step program geared toward dealing with alcohol-related issues.

12-Step Programs

Twelve-step programs are named for their reliance on progressive involvement in 12 stages or steps that gradually help a person with substance problems recover from those problems and carry out an ongoing, functional and sustainable daily routine. While the specific steps in any given program may vary, common goals of the process include acknowledging powerlessness over the ability to control drug or alcohol problems, asking for help to overcome these problems, making amends for damaging behavior that took place while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and helping other affected individuals in earlier stages of recovery.

Twelve-steps programs are also known as mutual help programs because they rely largely on the assistance that participants in advanced stages of recovery (i.e. sponsors) provide for those participants not as far along in the recovery process. Current evidence supports the usefulness of 12-step involvement as part of a larger approach to drug and alcohol treatment that also includes enrollment in a formal treatment program. However, in many cases, people participating in 12-step programs don’t enroll in formal treatment, and such programs play a primary role in substance recovery for large segments of the population.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the original 12-step program, founded in the U.S. in 1935. The program specifically seeks to help people affected by alcoholism, a condition defined by a physical reliance on alcohol intake and a range of associated and highly dysfunctional behaviors. Alcoholics Anonymous asks participants to establish a pattern of ongoing alcohol abstinence and uses the assistance provided by the 12 steps to help each individual achieve this goal. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was established in 1953, although the program remained relatively unknown until the late 1970s and early 1980s. The program’s name includes a reference to narcotics, a class of drugs and medications that, strictly speaking, only includes substances known as opioids or opiates. However, NA includes people dealing with all forms of substance addiction, including an addiction to alcohol. Still, the program focuses primarily on issues related to drug/medication use, not alcohol use.

Does Alcoholics Anonymous Help?

In the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, the Massachusetts General Hospital researchers used a project involving 279 young adults to gauge the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous participation for people who would normally take part in Narcotics Anonymous. The researchers undertook this project, in part, because AA is more widely available than NA, and no one really knows if a person dealing with drug problems will benefit sufficiently from a 12-step program geared toward alcohol problems. One hundred ninety-eight of the study participants were primarily affected by problems stemming from the use of opioid drugs/medications, stimulant drugs/medications or marijuana or some other form of cannabis. The remaining participants had problems primarily stemming from alcohol intake. Most of the people in both groups attended Alcoholics Anonymous, even if their substance use profiles suggested that Narcotics Anonymous was a better fit.

The researchers used two measurements to compare the effectiveness of NA for people recovering from drug problems to the effectiveness of AA: level of program participation and the ability to successfully avoid drug/medication use. After analyzing their data, they concluded that the drug-affected study participants who attended AA meetings were just as active in their programs as their drug-affected counterparts who attended NA meetings. In addition, these individuals displayed an equal ability to remain abstinent from drug use.

The study’s authors concluded that people dealing with drug/medication addiction may not have an increased risk for program dropout when they attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings instead of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. In addition, they concluded that people dealing with this form of addiction may not forfeit any of their chances of experiencing a successful recovery outcome when they attend AA meetings rather than NA meetings.

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