Mutual Support Groups / Self-Help Groups

Mutual support (also called self-help) groups are an important part of recovery from substance use disorders (SUDs). Mutual support groups exist both for persons with an SUD and for their families or significant others and are one of the choices an individual has during the recovery process.

Mutual Support Groups

Mutual support groups are nonprofessional groups comprising members who share the same problem and voluntarily support one another in the recovery from that problem.

Although mutual support groups do not provide formal treatment, they are one part of a recovery-oriented systems-of-care approach to substance abuse recovery. By providing social, emotional, and informational support for persons throughout the recovery process, mutual support groups help individuals take responsibility for their alcohol and drug problems and for their sustained health, wellness, and recovery. The most widely available mutual support groups are 12-Step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but other mutual support groups such as Women for Sobriety (WFS), SMART Recovery® (Self-Management and Recovery Training), and Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves (SOS) are also available.

12-Step Groups

Twelve-Step groups emphasize abstinence and have 12 core developmental “steps” to recovering from dependence. Other elements of 12-Step groups include taking responsibility for recovery, sharing personal narratives, helping others, and recognizing and incorporating into daily life the existence of a higher power.

Participants often maintain a close relationship with a sponsor, an experienced member with long-term abstinence, and lifetime participation is expected.

AA is the oldest and best known 12-Step mutual support group. There are more than 100,000 AA groups worldwide and over 2.5 million members.

The AA model has been adapted for people with dependence on drugs and for their family members. Some groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Chemically Dependent Anonymous, focus on any type of drug use.

Other groups, such as Cocaine Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous, focus on abuse of specific drugs. Groups for persons with co-occurring substance use and mental disorders also exist (e.g., Double Trouble in Recovery; Dual Recovery Anonymous).

Other 12-Step groups—Families Anonymous, Al-Anon/Alateen, Nar-Anon, and Co-Anon—provide support to significant others, families, and friends of persons with SUDs.

Twelve-Step meetings are held in locations such as churches and public buildings. Metropolitan areas usually have specialized groups, based on such member characteristics as gender, length of time in recovery, age, sexual orientation, profession, ethnicity, and language spoken. Attendance and membership are free, although people usually give a small donation when they attend a meeting.

Meetings can be “open” or “closed”?that is, anyone can attend an open meeting, but attendance at closed meetings is limited to people who want to stop drinking or using drugs. Although meeting formats vary somewhat, most 12-Step meetings have an opening and a closing that are the same at every meeting, such as a 12-Step reading or prayer. The main part of the meeting usually consists of

  • members sharing their stories of dependence, its effect on their lives, and what they are doing to stay abstinent,
  • the study of a particular step or other doctrine of the group, or
  • a guest speaker.

Twelve-Step groups are not necessarily for everyone. Some people are uncomfortable with the spiritual emphasis and prefer a more secular approach. Others may not agree with the 12-Step philosophy that addiction is a chronic disease, thinking that this belief can be a self-fulfilling prophesy that weakens the ability to remain abstinent. Still others may prefer gender- specific groups. Mutual support groups that are not based on the 12-Step model typically do not advocate sponsors or lifetime membership. These support groups offer an alternative to traditional 12-Step groups, but the availability of in-person meetings is more limited than that of 12-Step programs. However, many offer literature, discussion boards, and online meetings.

To contact a mutual help / self-help group look in your local phone book or click on a link below.

For People Who Have a Substance Use Disorder

For People With Co-Occurring Disorders

For Families, Friends, and Significant Others


Related Reading:

The Treatment
Varcarolis' Foundations of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing: A Clinical Approach, 7e
Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism