Are 12-Step Programs Effective?

If you or someone you love struggles with drug addiction (also called substance use disorder), you have probably heard of 12-step programs. These programs provide a set of principles designed to help people achieve long-term sobriety.

Although 12-step treatment is popular, many people wonder whether it is truly effective. However, many researchers have proven the effectiveness of AA and other 12-step programs

Why 12-Step Programs Are Effective

In 2020, a systematic review led by Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Keith Humphreys found that AA meetings often produce higher abstinence rates than psychotherapy. 

Abstinence Rates

Humphreys claims this is because AA groups offer not only practical advice on staying sober but also social support from fellow AA members.  

The review also suggested that AA participation reduces health care costs. This may be because AA participants typically experience fewer relapses and therefore require less drug treatment. 

In addition, a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that people who participated in both AA and professional alcoholism treatment had higher abstinence rates at one-year and three-year follow-ups compared to people who only had professional treatment. 

12-Step Facilitation Therapy (TSF)

Other studies have looked specifically at 12-step facilitation therapy (TSF). 

One study found that people who participate in TSF are more likely to stay abstinent than people who participate in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or motivational enhancement therapy (MET), two therapies that are often used in alcohol addiction treatment. 

Are All Types Of 12-Step Programs Effective?

Although all of these studies only examined AA, their results suggest that NA and other 12-step programs are also effective. 

Because 12-step groups are so helpful, many people continue attending them long after professional treatment ends. This continued participation can greatly reduce your risk of relapse. 

How Do 12-Step Programs Work?

Twelve-step programs encourage people to follow 12 specific steps for building a healthy, sober life. These steps include:

  1. admitting your powerlessness over drugs
  2. believing that a higher power can help you overcome your drug abuse
  3. turning your life over to your higher power (which could be a religious deity or a meaningful concept, such as love or the universe)
  4. making a moral inventory of yourself
  5. admitting your shortcomings to your higher power, yourself, and someone you know
  6. becoming ready to have your higher power remove your shortcomings
  7. asking your higher power to remove your shortcomings
  8. making a list of all the people you have harmed
  9. making amends to all the people you have harmed wherever possible
  10. continuing to make a moral inventory of yourself and admit your shortcomings
  11. improving your contact with your higher power through prayer and meditation
  12. sharing these steps with other people who struggle with drug use

You will explore and discuss all of these steps at 12-step meetings, which resemble support groups (also called self-help or mutual-help groups). These meetings help you create a social network of people who understand your struggles and support your sobriety. 

They may also give you the chance to find a sponsor. A sponsor is an experienced 12-step member who assists you on your recovery journey and helps you complete each of the 12 steps. 

Types Of AA Programs

There are many different types of 12-step programs. The most popular are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). 

AA addresses alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence). NA addresses addictions to drugs besides alcohol, including opioids like heroin and oxycodone, stimulants like cocaine and meth, and many other substances. 

Professional Treatment & The 12-Steps

Some people start attending 12-step groups before they seek professional treatment. Indeed, a 12-step program is a great place to begin your recovery journey if you don’t yet have the money or time to attend a drug abuse treatment program.

Other people discover 12-step groups during professional treatment. That’s because many inpatient and outpatient treatment centers offer 12-step facilitation therapy (TSF). 

This type of therapy explains the 12-step approach to recovery and encourages people to attend 12-step meetings on a regular basis.

Do 12-Step Programs Work For Everyone?

While 12-step programs are highly effective, they may not work for everyone. For example, some people dislike the program’s focus on spirituality and a higher power. In addition, people who are introverted or socially anxious may struggle with the program’s group setting. 

Luckily, there are many other treatment options for drug abuse and addiction. When you enter a professional treatment program, a team of health care providers will help you determine which treatment services will meet your specific needs. 

To learn more about substance abuse treatment options, please contact Northeast Addictions Treatment Center. Our board-certified clinicians offer 12-step facilitation therapy, mental health counseling, and a variety of other interventions to help you become drug-free. 

Read More:


Alcoholics Anonymous — The Twelve Steps

National Institute on Drug Abuse — 12-Step Facilitation Therapy

United States National Library of Medicine — Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.