The SSA’s Rob Calder and Natalie Davies describe 12-step programmes.

The ‘12 steps’ are at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which was co-founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. They present a step-by-step guide to recovery, beginning with someone recognising that they have a problem and surrendering to what they need to do to get better. Although the 12 steps focus on the individual (and their medical and spiritual recovery), AA puts an emphasis on ‘fellowship’, social support, and mutual aid. The 12 steps were originally developed for alcohol and AA, but are now used in many other fellowships including Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous.

The 12 steps:

  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 to do 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 alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

How do you deliver 12-step programmes?

The key tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous are sometimes referred to as the ‘AA six pack’: don’t drink, go to meetings, ask for help, get a sponsor, join a group, and get active. Each AA group is autonomous and self-funded through contributions from members. The official website provides information and advice on how to start a new group, including considerations such as where to hold meetings, how to attract members, and what reading materials to have available. It also has a list of current meetings.

There are several different ways to work the 12 steps. Some people do so with the support of a sponsor and through attending meetings. Others participate in more formal 12-step treatment programmes, such as the Minnesota Model.

A 12-step facilitation programme was developed as part of Project MATCH to introduce clients to the 12-step philosophy and support system, and encourage their attendance at 12-step meetings.

Are 12-step programmes effective?

A Cochrane review published in 2020 found three cases where 12-step programmes were associated with better outcomes against the measure of ‘continuous abstinence’. For AA, abstinence is the critical outcome, but this may not be the most important outcome for everyone. Furthermore, these particular interventions involved manualised, weekly sessions for 3 months with therapists, making them a highly-structured, professionalised, and intensive add-on to the typical AA group.

Other than its ability to cultivate a social network of supportive peers, a defining feature of Alcoholics Anonymous is the spiritual/religious nature of the original 12 steps. A 2019 review of spiritual/religious interventions found that they were probably effective for people with substance use problems, but did not find that spiritual/religious components were the only active ingredients operating, or confirm that they were operating at all.

A review of how Alcoholics Anonymous works highlighted features that 12-step programmes share with other approaches, including heightening confidence that one can resist drinking, bolstering motivation for abstinence and commitment to recovery, developing coping strategies such as avoiding high-risk situations, and strengthening social support.

Equality and diversity considerations

Twelve-step programmes have a low barrier of entry, which means that they might be more accessible for particularly marginalised and disenfranchised groups of people than formal models of treatment and support. However, 12-step programmes do not have the same strength of evidence of effectiveness as psychosocial therapies such as motivational interviewing and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

The 12 steps at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous have a religious tone, with seven of the steps “refer[ring] either to a deity – ‘God,’ ‘Him’ or ‘a Power greater than ourselves’ – or to religious practices such as prayer.” While the umbrella group for Alcoholics Anonymous in the UK acknowledges the programme has its origins in a Christian group, it says there is “only one requirement for membership and that is the desire to stop drinking. There is room in AA for people of all shades of belief and non-belief.”

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, written by Bill W. in 1939, has been instrumental in many people’s journey to recovery. However, when it was written, it was created primarily with men in mind. The fourth edition stated that “what we have said applies quite as much to women [as men]”, yet, little about the language has changed.

Where can I read more?

  • The Big Book is available on the Alcoholics Anonymous website.
  • An in-depth article published by Drug and Alcohol Findings discusses whether 12-step programmes can help bridge the gap between the UK Government’s heightened ambition for recovery from addiction and disinvestment in treatment and support services.
  • On January 26 1971, The New York Times published an obituary of William Griffith Wilson (known as Bill W.), who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

by Rob Calder and Natalie Davies

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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