The 12-Step philosophy pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous is used by about 74 percent of treatment centers. The basic premise of this model is that people can help one another achieve and maintain abstinence from substances of abuse, but that healing cannot come about unless people with addictions surrender to a higher power. The 12-Step movement can be a force for good for many people, but some struggle with what they interpret as a strong religious element of the program. Many addiction treatment programs offer alternatives to 12-Step methodology for those who prefer a more secular foundation for treatment.
One of the most well-known and commonly used types of recovery support is the 12-Step model. Just about everyone has heard of these meetings or of the organization that originated the idea – Alcoholics Anonymous.Twelve-Step programs remain a commonly recommended and used treatment modality for various types of addiction. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) in its National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services from 2013, 12-Step models are used, at least occasionally, by approximately 74 percent of treatment centers.
Wilson wrote his program in what has become known as the Big Book. As explained in historical information from the AA site itself, the steps were developed through synthesizing concepts from a few other teachings he had encountered, including a six-step program espoused by an organization called the Oxford Group.
In their original form, the 12 Steps came from a spiritual, Christian inspiration that sought help from a greater power as well as from peers suffering from the same addiction struggles.
The Big Book was originally written as a guide for people who couldn’t attend AA fellowship meetings, but it soon became a model for the program in general. It has since been adopted as a model for a wide range of addiction peer-support and self-help programs designed to help drive behavioral change. In addition to the original Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group, various offshoots now exist, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Heroin Anonymous (HA), and Gamblers Anonymous (GA).
The basic premise of the 12-Step model is that people can help one another achieve and maintain abstinence from the substances or behaviors to which they are addicted. They can do this through meetings in which they share their experiences with one another and support each other in the ongoing effort of maintaining abstinence. In research, as seen in a recent article from the journal Addiction Research and Theory, abstinence practices (as supported by 12-Step programs) can account for high levels of what experts call flourishing, which is positive mental health and can contribute to longer-term recovery. In the study, those who maintained abstinence were more likely to flourish in the long-term, with 40.7 percent flourishing after three months (as compared to 9.3 percent languishing) and nearly 40 percent flourishing after 12 months (compared to 12.4 percent languishing).
Based on this study, those who abstain altogether from substances – as advised in the 12-Step model – have better mental health outcomes than those who don’t abstain. The 12-Step model gives people a framework from which to surrender their addiction, process their experience, and move forward into new patterns. As described in an article on Psych Central called Recovery Using the 12 Steps, following the model assists an individual by helping build the following mental and emotional transformative practices and tools:
By providing these experiences and tools, the 12-Step model can be a method for change in many types of behavior. As a result, it can help individuals who wish to overcome addiction to find a path to recovery.
The 12 Steps, as outlined in the original Big Book and presented by AA are:
Since its origin with AA, the 12-Step model has been adopted and altered by many groups to fit other programs – for addiction treatment and otherwise. Many groups, like Narcotics Anonymous, use the steps exactly as they were conceived by AA. Others have modified the steps to fit their own needs and cultures. For example, a Native American group has combined the 12 Steps with the Native American concept of the Medicine Wheel to create a program designed specifically to help indigenous Americans who struggle with alcoholism and addiction, the Medicine Wheel and 12 Steps program. Others have come up with similar ideas to integrate the basic ideas of the 12 Steps into a cultural framework that makes sense for members of that culture.
Another variation comes from the fact that some people are uncomfortable with the specific, religious aspects of the 12-Step program. As stated above, and as evident by the steps themselves, the 12-Step model originated from a Christian point of view. Those who are not Christian have modified the steps to refer to their specific religious or spiritual practice as a way to connect more with the structure of the 12-Step program. In addition, a number of non-religious 12-Step groups have modified the steps to fit a secular model that can help those who are agnostic or atheist practice the program without feeling forced to adhere to a religion they don’t believe in.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, short-term residential programs developed the idea of using a modified 12-Step approach to provide a shorter stay in treatment that included follow-up through a 12-Step fellowship. This is seen as a way to provide the important post-treatment structure that helps people maintain long-term recovery. Other programs have also incorporated the 12 Steps, both by encouraging clients to attend 12-Step fellowship meetings, and by incorporating 12-Step ideas into their practices.
While 12-Step facilitation programs don’t necessarily follow the steps, they promote the use of a 12-Step methodology, in the hope that clients will move to a 12-Step program after rehab to help maintain sobriety. In addition, certain treatment centers base their model for service around some of the ideas promoted through the 12-Step program. These centers can offer research-based services and promote a more scientific understanding of addiction treatment, but they incorporate some of the spiritual, psychological, and practical practices that the 12-Step program promotes. This results in an encompassing model of care designed to support clients through rehab and to give tools that they can use after treatment to maintain their recovery for the long-term.
Some people don’t like or are not interested in the 12-Step model, even with the variations above or through organizations that facilitate the 12-Step model. Some people don’t like basing their recovery on the idea that they cannot control their addiction, when there is evidence that there are ways of practicing internal control over the recovery process.
Some of the programs based on this active control model include groups like SMART Recovery and Moderation Management. These groups use a similar peer-sharing model, but they don’t rely on the idea of surrender. They instead promote the empowerment of the individual to exercise control over the treatment of and recovery from addiction
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