Do 12-Step Programs Really Work?

by | Feb 15, 2012

Addiction impacts the health and well-being of an individual while it affects their loved ones and friends. Very few addicts want to be addicts, they all want to break free and live a fulfilled and happy life, free from the destructive impulses that their addiction brings.

So how do they break the cycle? How do they “recover”? Some addicts attempt to go it alone, some rely on the support of co-dependents and never really “recover” as such, others seek counseling and some use a twelve-step program.

What is a twelve-step program?
According to Wikipedia, “A twelve-step program is a set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems. Originally proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as a method of recovery from alcoholism, the Twelve Steps were first published in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism in 1939.” Since the twelve-step program was launched, the method has been adapted by other organizations and has become the foundation of other twelve-step programs such as Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the largest of all the twelve-step programs, followed by Narcotics Anonymous; the majority of twelve-step members are recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Interestingly though, the majority of twelve-step programs address illnesses other than addiction. For example, the third largest twelve-step program, Al-Anon, assists family members of alcoholics and addicts. About twenty percent of twelve-step programs are for addiction recovery, the other eighty percent address a variety of problems from debt to depression.

What are the Twelve Steps?

These are the original Twelve Steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:

  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.

In some cases, where other twelve-step groups have adapted the AA steps as guiding principles, they have been altered to emphasize principles important to those particular fellowships, to remove gender-biased or specific religious language.

Are Twelve-Step Programs Effective?

Almost any systematic addict recovery program will work on some level, as it offers a procedure to follow, something for the addict to cling to. However, there are varying opinions as to whether specifically twelve-step programs work. Those who they have helped using the process swear by them and are almost evangelical in their support. They see the program as non-judgmental; the addict can feel safe among fellow sufferers who are going through something similar so they don\’t feel so alone.

However, it also has to be stated that the twelve-step process does not help all addicts. Some find the group therapy and openness of discussion threatening. Although members are encouraged to respect each other\’s privacy and told that everything discussed will remain confidential, this is not legally mandated and is therefore difficult to enforce. Others have accused twelve-step programs of acting like a cult; that they take away free will and strip away identity.

The main issue for many is that the original twelve-step program is now over 80 years old. The program was designed in a different era, when alcoholism was seen as a disease rather than an addiction. Social attitudes and the medical establishment\’s approach have changed, as has our understanding of addiction, and some believe that the Twelve-Step programs are no longer as effective as they were.

At the end of the day effectiveness can only really be judged by the results. And it is very hard to measure the effectiveness of these types of programs as existing statistics cannot provide a full picture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that yes, twelve-step programs are effective for many people. But for others they do not work.

It can be argued that whether or not the addict is “cured,” twelve-step programs are effective in that they raise awareness of addiction and have steps in place to help addicts and their loved ones. It is not a perfect solution but it is a lifeline to many addicts and their families. So if you have a loved one in trouble, explore all the treatments available, including twelve-step programs, and make up your own mind.

For more information on the twelve-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, visit,


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