Self-help groups for addiction include 12-step groups, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, LifeRing, and others. Of these, 12-step programs like AA and NA are by far the most popular, with more than 100,000 AA groups alone worldwide. SMART Recovery is the largest non-12-step program with about 1500 groups in the US. What newer groups like SMART, Refuge Recovery, and LifeRing lack in physical meetings, they make up for in online presence. Members can participate in forums and virtual meetings from anywhere. These kinds of groups can play a valuable role in recovery, but for people with serious addictions, they may not be enough. That’s unfortunate because they are often the first and only way people try to beat addiction. They may not think they can afford treatment or they may assume a self-help group is all they really need. This belief is reinforced by the fact that courts often sentence people to attend 12-step meetings. However, there are several reasons more intensive treatment may be necessary.
Detox can be difficult.
You don’t have to be sober to attend a self-help, or mutual-aid, meeting. Usually, anyone who wants to get sober is welcome. However, at some point, you do actually have to get sober, which can be tough. Exactly how tough depends on many factors, including what drugs you’ve been using, how long you’ve been using, how old you are, and whether you have any other health problems. If you’re trying to quit opioids, you may be in for a bad time. Opioid withdrawal is often described as the worst flu you’ve ever had. Withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, anxiety, runny nose, shaking, sweating, fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, bone and muscle aches, and insomnia. Even worse, you know all this can stop if you just start using again. The pain of detox causes many people to give up halfway through. Entering residential treatment where they can do a medical detox increases your chances of following through so you can actually begin recovery. They can also help make detox a little more comfortable, perhaps starting medication assisted therapy, which shortens detox. Some drugs are actually dangerous to quit. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can be dangerous if you quit them abruptly. If you’re a very heavy drinker, you might get the DTs, which can cause fatal seizures or psychosis. Heavy drinkers trying to detox are sometimes given medications to prevent seizures or to treat insomnia. People with pre-existing medical conditions, especially cardiovascular disease may also need special attention while they detox to prevent complications. Benzodiazepine and barbiturate withdrawal can also cause seizures and psychosis. For this reason, they have to be tapered slowly, often for months.
Many people have co-occurring conditions.
Most people who struggle with addiction have a co-occurring condition as well. Addiction is frequently caused by something else, usually a mental health issue. Common issues that come with addiction include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and schizophrenia. These are serious issues that need professional help. Unless you treat these underlying conditions, there is very little hope of controlling your addiction. Self-help groups are mostly volunteer organizations and have no professional guidance. They are support groups, not therapy groups. No one should expect to get effective treatment for schizophrenia or ADHD at a 12-step meeting. What’s more, many of these conditions require medication, which mutual aid groups cannot prescribe. In fact, NA explicitly forbids the use of medications and many AA groups discourage using medication. You can still attend meetings, of course, but you aren’t considered sober if you take so much as an SSRI to manage depression.
Most self-help groups don’t use tested methods.
Most self-help groups are more like fellowships than treatment groups. They foster a sense of connection and accountability, but often there is no science behind their methods. What’s more, their success rates are very difficult to study. All of these groups value privacy. AA, famously, only uses first names and members are supposed to be anonymous. This is a valuable protection for group members, but it also makes the effectiveness of 12-step groups hard to study. Still, people try. Most studies have found that these groups are extremely effective for about a third of participants, moderately effective for a third, and not at all effective for the rest. What’s more, those rates appear to be about the same for other groups, including SMART Recovery and LifeRing. That said, different groups will work better for different people. For example, more people remain abstinent while attending 12-step meetings than SMART meetings, but many people attending SMART meetings only want to moderate their use and many of them succeed. SMART Recovery is perhaps the exception to the rule. Most groups use methods that have some scientific value. For example, there is evidence that the mindfulness and loving-kindness practices employed by Refuge Recovery are effective in relieving depression and anxiety. However, SMART Recovery is the only group that uses only evidence-based methods and changes those methods as new evidence becomes available. Despite this, you still can’t get a prescription for Adderall or Suboxone at a SMART meeting.
Self-help groups can play a role in recovery.
Although self-help groups are often not sufficient in themselves to to treat addiction, they can play a valuable role in recovery. They are an excellent way to build a sober network of people who will support you and hold you accountable. They are an opportunity to volunteer and to help others, which makes you feel better about yourself. They can be a good way to remind yourself of the important lessons you learned in treatment and regularly reaffirm your commitment to sobriety.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.