As the most accessible addictive substance in the U.S., alcohol has the potential to destroy more lives than most street drugs out there. It’s estimated that more than 15 million people struggle with an alcohol use disorder. Treatment for alcoholism has been widely available for many years, however, statistics show that less than 8% of those suffering from an alcohol-related disorder will seek treatment for it.
Of all the treatment programs out there, Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, has been among the most popular choices for decades. A quick Google search will produce testimonial after testimonial from AA vets swearing by the program. Still, it’s just as easy to uncover a wide range of skeptics that question the program’s overall effectiveness, and some who even discourage it completely.
An Impartial Perspective
If you heard about a store or product that you were interested in, you might decide to go online and look over some reviews before blindly investing time and money into something new. The problem you may run into, however, is that not every customer is a satisfied customer. In fact, customers who had a negative experience are more likely to take the time to leave a negative review. So, mathematically, the positive-negative review ratio may be a little bit skewed.
The one indisputable conclusion we can draw from this applies to just about every product or service in the known universe: it’s not for everyone.
In the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, we see a very similar “review” situation. So we’ll take a look at AA’s effectiveness over the years from an unbiased and data-guided perspective.
A Brief Overview Of AA
Rather than examining AA as an individual entity, we need to acknowledge what it really is: a 12-step program—more specifically, the first 12-step program, founded in 1935. The program (and all 12-step programs) are designed around a faith-based approach- and with that, a portion of readers out there have suddenly been turned off to the idea. But that’s okay, because we already know that it’s not for everyone.
The 12 steps utilized throughout the AA program include members admitting that they’re powerless over alcohol and that they are willing to turn their lives over to a higher power. The program also requires that members admit to their wrongful choices and that they make amends with those that they’ve hurt, relying on the support and encouragement of fellow members and sponsors.
In terms of numbers, it’s difficult to gauge AA’s effectiveness for a few reasons. Alcoholics Anonymous is, well, anonymous. So some members and participants won’t necessarily participate in the studies conducted to determine the program’s overall effectiveness. In addition, those who suffer from alcohol and drug abuse disorders don’t always achieve full sobriety during their first attempt at recovery. Addiction is a life-long journey and, many times, addicts and alcoholics relapse several times throughout the course of their lives.
The findings that have been reported for AA programs vary slightly, depending on which organization conducted the study. For example, the New York Times suggests that Alcoholics Anonymous boasts a relatively high success rate of about 75 percent, compared to the 10 percent average success rate of 12-step groups, overall. But even the Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book reports only a 50 percent success rate. In this self-study conducted by AA themselves, they state that the other 50 percent is broken down into two categories: 25 percent who relapse, but who re-enter the AA program, and another 25 percent who do not remain sober. Alcoholics Anonymous states that the former members who do not remain sober did not follow the AA program guidelines as directed. More specific findings from AA’s study can be found here.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported results from a long-term study that generally supported Alcoholics Anonymous’ claims of a 50 percent success rate. Following this study, which tracked thousands of the program’s participants for a period of about eight years, it was concluded that attendance in AA programs did, in fact, have an impact in the recovery process.
Other studies conducted of 12-step programs, in general, reported success rates that were lower than those of AA’s but concluded that participation in these programs were still effective additives to clinical rehabilitation programs.
Based on several studies, we can draw a few conclusions. Data indicates that participation in a 12-step program, like AA, is typically beneficial for those who are already pursuing clinical treatment options. However, the choice to pursue a program that is faith-based or secular is left up to the individual to decide.
Studies do seem to support the idea that Alcoholics Anonymous does average higher success rates than other 12-step programs but, as stated earlier: it’s not for everyone.
Regardless of which type of program one chooses to participate in, willful and dedicated commitment to the program guidelines is an essential ingredient in achieving sobriety. Thus, it’s crucial that the approach and overall environment of the program is aligned with values and beliefs of the individual who attends it. In this situation, simply going through the motions will likely result in failure and, ultimately, relapse.