recovering addict

Is AA Truly Effective at Treating Addiction? New Study Says Yes

By Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in providing psychotherapy for individuals, families, and groups struggling with substance use disorders and psychiatric illnesses.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

recovering addict

Alcoholism doesn't discriminate; it impacts people of all ages and demographics. And just like addiction exists everywhere, recovery exists everywhere as well. In fact, according to AA's (Alcoholics Anonymous) website, people host AA meetings in approximately 180 nations worldwide. Over 2 million members tune in to the program for growth, fellowship, and recovery.

Unfortunately, statistics on alcoholism recovery tend to be scant. For one, it's challenging to obtain and assess accurate data. Because addiction tends to be so stigmatizing and shameful, many people fear transparency about their struggles. Moreover, even experts often disagree on defining successful treatment. After all, is it only a measure of people who are fully abstinent? What about individuals who practice a harm reduction approach?

There isn't a single "best" approach to recovery. Likewise, all studies have limitations, and we need to keep that in mind.

Many people feel polarized about the efficacy of AA. Dedicated members often cite AA as the only group that saved their life. Many proclaim that AA provided them with a spiritual foundation to maintain abstinence.

Critics tend to harsh AA for its rigid, black-and-white approach. They argue that AA doesn't have enough medical research to back its success claims.

Who's right? And how well does AA actually work?

The Anatomy of AA

Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. formed AA in 1935 in Akron, OH. Both men reported intense experiences of despair and hopelessness before coming together. They realized that mutual support and helping other alcoholics created something inherently powerful.

The Fellowship published its first book in 1939. Bill W. outlined the philosophy, morale, and methods exhibited in AA. Today, members often consider this text as the infamous "big book."

AA quickly expanded. Over 100,000 members were attending meetings by 1950. The growth continues to increase every decade. Today, there are many offshoots of Alcoholics Anonymous, such as Narcotics, Cocaine, Overeaters, Gambling, Emotions, and Codependents Anonymous.

Members can choose their level of program involvement. Some simply want to attend meetings. Others choose to share their thoughts, work with the 12 steps with a sponsor, obtain volunteer positions, and attend conventions and other large-scale events.

The Controversy of AA

Very few things in the recovery community stir as much emotion and controversy as AA. Critics express concern that AA has a cult-like mentality. Some believe that an abstinence-only approach merely sets people up for ultimate failure. Finally, many argue that AA lacks evidence-based roots and that it is based on outdated ideas.

Additionally, many people point to the successes associated with methods like:

  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group psychotherapy (facilitated by mental health professionals)
  • Medication management
  • Harm reduction
  • Other support groups (SMART Recovery, LifeRing, Secular Organizations For Sobriety)
  • Spiritual connection

The Latest on The Effectiveness of AA

A recent study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Review found that AA did, in fact, have high success rates. It showed higher rates of long-term, sustained sobriety when compared to other control measures, like cognitive behavioral therapy.

This research brings good news to people looking for a new way of living. For one, AA is free. In addition, the program builds on peer support and camaraderie. AA is about peer support. It's not about who has the most academic expertise. Instead, it's about who dares to share their vulnerability and help someone who is struggling.

How This Study Can Change Our Response

There isn't a single "best" approach to recovery. Likewise, all studies have limitations, and we need to keep that in mind.

AA fans will continue doing what works well for them. Skeptics may remain skeptical. Some people may decide to "try it out" just to see if it's worth the shot.

It's crucial that we all practice compassion and respect for anyone choosing to embrace recovery. It's a hard decision and an even harder process. Rather than criticizing how people go about it, we should be celebrating and encouraging their choices and their bravery.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-891-8171 to talk to a treatment specialist.

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