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How Effective are Non-12-Step Recovery Programmes?

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Recovery from addiction is a long, hard process that takes a lot of dedication. Regardless of the nature of the addiction, many people choose to get help rather than go through the process alone. For a lot of them, this means a 12-step recovery programme like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or some similar 12-step programme.

But these types of programmes are far from universally helpful – there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for addiction. This being the case, you’d have to look at the individual to determine how effective their recovery programme is. It could be a more traditional, AA-style programme, with weekly meetings. Or, it could be a non-12-step recovery programme, such as treatment from Zoe Behavioral Health’s Lake Forest Detox centre. Whatever the case, the treatment should be customised for the individual; this will help them stay motivated to complete whatever programme they’re participating in.

Why 12-step recovery programmes aren’t always effective?

If someone has decided to try and beat their addiction, they’re likely to reach out to the first and easiest option they know about. For many, this means looking up the nearest 12-step recovery programme. These meetings offer ongoing support from peers, and they’re typically accessible compared to other treatment models (such as inpatient or hospitalisation). 

However, it’s important to realize that these programmes tackle addiction from a fairly specific angle, originally based on Christian beliefs. They say that people of any religious orientation can join, but the fact remains that the basic philosophies of AA, NA, and similar programmes are simply incompatible with some people’s beliefs. In fact, one study found that around 75% of secular individuals in recovery from alcoholism declined to participate in AA, likely due to its religious undertones. 

Here are are some of the factors that may prevent someone from finding success in a 12-step recovery programme:

  • They lack structure. A 12-step programme revolves around weekly meetings, for which attendance is voluntary. Attendees don’t receive personalized treatment, and there’s no framework provided for the remainder of the week. Many cases of addiction require more than just weekly meetings, which is why these programmes may fall short.
  • They don’t address underlying issues. A large percentage of addictions don’t occur in a vacuum; they’re triggered by underlying issues such as chronic illness, psychiatric disorders, or trauma. However, a 12-step programme isn’t equipped to deal with these issues; it focuses solely on addiction.
  • They may clash with personal circumstances. Those struggling with addiction may not be sober enough to drive themselves to meetings. If the nearest gathering place is far away, or inaccessible through public transportation, this could effectively prevent someone from attending regularly.
  • They may not feel safe attending. Some 12-step programmes are held in unsafe neighbourhoods, where a single person might not want to walk through alone. A woman might not feel comfortable attending meetings that are otherwise 100% male; minorities or those who identify as LGBTQ+ could feel similarly about meetings in areas that are known to discriminate against them.
  • They require some degree of faith. The founders of AA and other 12-step programmes are devout Christians, and their beliefs are woven into the philosophies behind the 12 steps. For example, step #5 requires attendees to seek out conscious contact with “god” or to cultivate spiritual growth, whatever that happens to mean to them personally. Even though their doors are technically open to people of all belief systems, this may present an obstacle for those from non-Christian backgrounds.

Why non-12-step recovery programmes may be more effective?

Again, it’s important to reiterate that every individual’s treatment should be unique to them. For some, a 12-step programme will help them beat their addiction. For others, an alternative is needed. With that in mind, let’s take a look at those alternatives, and why they fill gaps left by conventional 12-step programmes. The top alternatives are:

  • Outpatient treatment. Patients are given access to multiple therapeutic modalities, while also living on their own. Treatments may still be fairly intensive, but outpatient programmes are less structured than inpatient programmes. There’s more emphasis placed on continued recovery in the context of a healthier lifestyle.
  • Partial hospitalization programmes (PHPs). Patients generally live in nearby housing or in the facility itself, but they’re allowed to leave the campus on evenings or weekends. Daily therapy is also provided, and treatments are structured so that patients can really focus on recovery.
  • Residential or inpatient treatment. This is the most intense option, with patients staying at a rehab facility 24/7 for days, weeks, or even months. The staff and therapists are trained to help patients through every aspect of addiction recovery, from withdrawals to cravings. There’s a lot more structure and support, and patients are better able to dive deep into their recovery process.

In many ways, these options exist on the opposite end of the scale from 12-step programmes – and not just because they offer more structure. 12-step programmes emphasise the belief that addiction is a disease that’s impossible to control through willpower alone. According to them, it takes the help of the 12 steps and a higher power to overcome substance abuse issues.

Non-12-step programmes, on the other hand, put the focus on personal responsibility and motivation to create a better life. With the responsibility for staying sober attributed to the individual, this puts control over the recovery process in their hands. There’s also more of an emphasis on establishing a balance with a combination of peer support meetings, therapy as needed, and overall wellness practices. Each non-12-step programme is slightly different, but they all promote peer support and self-reliance.

So what’s the conclusion – how effective are non-12-step recovery programmes?

It’s difficult to measure success in recovery addiction, especially since there’s about a 50% chance that the individual will relapse at some point. Even so, statistics show that both inpatient and outpatient programmes improve lives. From boosts in energy and mood to increased performance at work or school, these are some of the things that are instrumental in keeping someone on the path towards recovery.


Tim Williamson, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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