Do 12-Step Programs Work for Addiction Recovery?

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex mental health condition that requires professional treatment to overcome. Furthermore, substance use affects everyone differently. As there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for addiction, it can be overwhelming to narrow down the options to discover the right treatment program for you or a loved one.

Whether you have received treatment for addiction or know someone who has, you have probably heard of the popular treatment approach known as the Twelve Steps. Twelve-Step programs are widely used in treatment programs across the nation. Despite their ubiquity, you may have questions about their value for both short-term and long-term recovery. Learning about 12-Step programs, such as their history, purpose and effectiveness, can help you decide whether this type of program will be a good fit for you and your recovery journey.

Background of 12-Step Programs

In 1938, Bill Wilson, a former member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), created the Twelve Steps. Wilson himself struggled to achieve sobriety. As such, he was inspired to develop his own set of ideas and tips to help others find success in their recovery. Although the Steps were created from a Christian-oriented perspective, the present-day approach can be tailored to fit the unique spiritual needs of any member.

One reason why a 12-Step program is particularly useful is that it highlights the essential role that social support plays in SUD recovery. Ultimately, this program encourages individuals to hold peers in recovery accountable for their sobriety.

Additionally, the steps require every individual to trust their healing and recovery to a higher power. The very first step requires admitting and accepting one’s powerlessness over alcohol and other drugs. Following this, one must foster faith in a higher power and believe that power can facilitate their long-term recovery.

What Are the Twelve Steps in Addiction Recovery?

The Twelve Steps are outlined in the Big Book of AA. They are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to those struggling with alcohol addiction and practice these principles in all our affairs

The Effectiveness of 12-Step Programs

Every treatment facility and treatment program utilizes the 12-Step approach differently. Some programs may require daily attendance in 12-Step meetings, while others may only require attendance at one meeting per week. Similarly, some programs last a few months, while others last years. It is also important to consider that the lasting success of these programs calls for continuing participation in meetings over the course of a lifetime, not just during an initial treatment program.

A plethora of research confirms the effectiveness of 12-Step programs on treatment and recovery from SUD. Researchers gathered this evidence from periodic surveys of 12-Step program members. The average length of abstinence reported by members of AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is greater than five years. Among members of this body of research, most reported attending at least two to four meetings per week. This reveals that long-term abstinence is more achievable and sustainable when members attend meetings regularly.

Perhaps even more than regular attendance, the effectiveness of these programs can depend on members’ unique levels of participation and engagement. Other studies have found that in addition to long and sustained periods of abstinence, 12-Step participants report improved psychological functioning and self-efficacy.

Why Are 12-Step Programs So Effective?

Twelve-Step programs provide a framework for individuals to achieve lasting abstinence from alcohol and other substances. This program recognizes and highlights the value of social support far and above what others do. Putting faith in a higher power, making amends and ultimately finding purpose amidst the challenges of recovery are what make this model effective.

Still, it is essential to highlight that 12-Step approaches are not the most effective treatment approach for everyone. Many factors must be considered — such as unresolved trauma, the presence of co-occurring disorders and the severity of symptoms — before a patient can determine the best treatment approach for them. Individuals should engage in their own research about this program to know if this program will be a good fit for them.

Cliffside Malibu is an addiction treatment facility that understands the value of 12-Step programs for those seeking recovery from substance use disorder. Our recovery experts can integrate the 12-Step treatment approach as a part of your individualized treatment plan. To learn more about our treatment programs or for more information about the Twelve Steps, give us a call today at (855) 403-5641.