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Alcoholics Anonymous Not As Helpful as Secular Alternatives

Posted in Friendly Atheist by Skepdude on February 4, 2009

I’ve written about the topic before: Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs which require participants to submit to a higher power (PDF).

You would think that, because AA is so famously known and its program so widely used, it would at least be effective… right?

New research says otherwise.

So what works better than AA’s 12 steps?

In last month’s Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, University of New Mexico addiction specialist William Miller and his colleagues presented findings from two controlled trials in which patients underwent drug treatment. Some of the patients received spiritual guidance as part of the treatment — learning such practices as prayer, meditation and service to others, all of which are central to 12-step programs. Others received secular psychotherapy. Because of the enduring popularity of AA and similar programs that involve a spiritual component, Miller and his team expected the patients in the spiritual group to do better than those in the secular group. They were wrong — at least in the short term.

While both groups eventually benefited relatively equally from their treatment — abusing substances on fewer days — it took longer to see improvement among those in the spiritual group. What’s more, those who received spiritual guidance reported being significantly more anxious and depressed after four months than those who got secular help. Those problems abated at about the eight-month point, but because substance abusers are at high risk for suicide, some worry that it may not be a good idea to put them through demanding spiritual calisthenics in the early months of their recovery.

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