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November/December 2013 Issue

Recovery Diversity
By Marianne Mallon
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 6 P. 5

There is no doubt that the 12-step approach has been instrumental in helping countless individuals recover from dependence on alcohol, other drugs, and self-destructive behaviors. However, there are people for whom the 12-step format has not been a good fit. Support groups for those who do not wish to follow the 12 steps have been available for decades, but for various reasons have not achieved the same visibility. Proponents of other paths to sobriety believe that may be changing, and this issue’s cover story explains why.

The story identifies four important differences that characterize alternative groups: secularity, emphasis on internal control, attention to evolving approaches to recovery, and rejection of lifelong labels. In perspective, these four categories sound familiar—they reflect changes that have been happening in our culture over time—within younger generations, demographically, by gender, and within the research and clinical sectors of health care.

According to a recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, one in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion.

As U.S. demographics change, a secular approach may make alternative groups more accessible to agnostics and atheists as well as Buddhists, Muslims, and others who do not share a Western, Christian tradition.

Alternative groups also emphasize self-empowerment vs. reliance on a higher power and, from a feminist perspective, this may especially appeal to women in recovery.

Although the 12-step approach has grown over the decades, the basic language and methods have not changed significantly since its creation almost 80 years ago. Like all of health care, addiction treatment increasingly involves evidence-based practices, and supporters of other options in recovery contend that alternative groups are less dogmatic, more open to change, and have a greater commitment to stay abreast with current research.

As the author of our cover story points out, the goal of representatives from alternative recovery groups is not to bash 12-step programs but to communicate the message that there are other paths to sobriety when one size does not fit all.

The social work relevance in understanding these groups and making clients aware of them is undeniable in the strengths-based nature of self-empowerment, eschewing labels, valuing choice, and embracing diversity in all aspects of living, including recovery.