The Road to Recovery: Which Step Is Right for You? 12-Step or Non-12 Step

When it comes to addiction treatment and recovery, 12-step programs are the most recognized treatment paths in the world. These programs are synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups which have helped millions overcome powerful addictions to drugs and alcohol.

However, are 12-step programs right for everyone? Are there other treatment options available that might have a more profound impact on different individuals?

If you or someone you love is considering getting help for substance abuse, it’s important to understand what programs are out there. Recovering from an addiction takes time, so it’s important to evaluate and decide on a plan that is best suited to your individual needs.

Understanding the Differences Between 12-Step Programs Vs. Non-12-Step Programs

There are some decided similarities and dissimilarities between a 12-step approach and a non-12-step approach to addiction treatment. Let’s break them down into greater detail.

  • Philosophy and Treatment Approach: With a 12-step program, the foundation is rooted in faith. God is mentioned in the different steps. At the center of the treatment is the famed “Serenity Prayer” which highlights the acceptance of the addiction and surrender to a higher power. There is no real scientific basis for this program. Non-12-step programs tend to be rooted in secular beliefs, even if they have a faith component. They focus on the scientific or psychological aspects of addiction in their approach, though there is a lot of diversity between programs overall. Note: While the 12-step philosophy views addiction as a lifelong disease, non-12-step programs do not share that view. They focus more on empowering individuals to find the motivation to stay drug and alcohol free.
  • Individual vs. Group Approach: In 12-step programs, there is a team-based mentality. The central belief is that together, the group can help each other achieve sobriety. Every individual works with a sponsor who is a former addict, someone who understand the challenges of becoming clean and can provide support. Overall, the treatment is not individualized. Non-12-step programs also have some group components, but they delve more into individual needs and issues while identifying what methods work best for the person based on his or her underlying issues as well as overall addiction problems. These programs tend to be quite customized to the person.
  • Support Provided: Perhaps one of the biggest differences is in the support that’s available to you during the program and in aftercare. With 12-step programs, many aspects of this approach are volunteer-led. It’s a brotherhood/sisterhood philosophy toward recovery (“been there, done that” coaching). There is some professional counseling and medical support, but it is more limited. Non-12-step programs do offer considerably more professionally trained support, such as addiction and mental-health counselors and others who can get to the root of the individuals’ problems that led to addiction. These programs can provide dual-diagnosis treatment in which both the addiction and other problems (like anxiety or depression) are treated at the same time.
  • Meetings: With both types of programs, the meetings tend to be open unless otherwise stated. It really depends on the program itself. Traditional 12-step programs are generally open to the public, though introductory meetings might be more closed.
  • Costs: For meetings alone, both 12-step and non-12-step sessions are generally free. Residential programs do vary based on the program, facility, other offerings (detoxification, activities, etc.). Programs that are 12-step based tend to have volunteer support to lead group meetings and activities, which makes them more affordable compared to a non-12-step residential program which relies more on professionally trained staff. Insurance coverage available varies between 12-step vs. non-12-step treatment facilities as well. Most insurance plans have provisions for 12-step treatment.
  • Length of Treatment: Residential programs for both 12-step and non-12-step facilities do vary by treatment plan and individual needs. Many 12-step-based facilities have 30, 60, and 90 day inpatient programs. Aftercare can be short periods to lifelong meeting attendance depending on the person and his or her desire to stay clean and sober.
  • Availability: There are more 12-step programs compared to non-12-step programs out there. This means that if you go the 12-step route, you’ll be more likely to find a facility close by your home, as well as local meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous that you can attend as part of your aftercare. About 74 percent of treatment programs are based on a 12-step philosophy compared to 26 percent which are non-12-step philosophy. If you find that a non-12-step program is right for you, it may require traveling to a different city or state for initial treatment, as well as aftercare support.
  • Confidentiality: Both types of programs take personal confidentiality extremely seriously and will not divulge your personal information.
  • Family Support: The 12-step programs have specific support groups for family members of those suffering from addiction. With the non-12-step program, this support network will vary by program.
  • Success Rates: Again, it varies by treatment program and facility. Strictly attending 12-step meetings alone has a lower success rater overall (5 percent to 10 percent according to a Harvard study). The Center for Disease Control cites that 50 percent of the population faces mental health issues during their lifetimes, which suggests that treating mental health problems increases the likelihood of succeeding in addiction treatment.

Questions to Ask Before You Choose a Program

As with any program, it’s important to ask a lot of questions before you decide this is the right option for you. Remember, your individual success is based on whether this treatment is the right fit for you. Many times people who relapse are those who haven’t taken the time to research and understand what program is best suited for them.

Take time to ask these questions before you decide on a specific facility and path:

1) What does the cost of the program entail?
2) What is the average success rate?
3) What is included in the treatment plan (i.e. detoxification, therapy, activities, counseling, aftercare)?
4) If it’s a residential program, what are the leave and visitor policies?
5) Will you have individual counseling and support from trained professionals?
6) Are group meetings involved?
7) Are you going to be paired with a sponsor?
8) What can you expect from the overall program?
9) How long will you be in treatment?
10) What support is available for family members?
11) How does the program support people who are tempted to use again or relapse into their habits?

By asking these questions in advance, you’ll be able to better understand what to expect and identify which path will offer you the best outcomes.

What Are Some of the Components of Non-12-Step Programs?

Traditional 12-step approaches are faith-based. They believe in God or a high power being in control. The programs and treatment are centered on this belief.

There is a world of options available to those seeking to kick their drug or alcohol dependencies. For example, there are holistic approaches that use yoga and meditation. There are nutrition and exercise programs and vitamin-based therapies.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), also referred to as rational emotive behavioral therapy, are evidence-based treatments. With CBT, the focus is on understanding the actions, triggers, thought patterns, past experiences, and more that led to substance abuse. CBT is solution-oriented, which means that the end goal is to help the person redirect his or her thinking and identify coping mechanisms when faced with situations that might otherwise trigger drug or alcohol use. This is often used in dual diagnosis treatments.

There are some individuals who do decidedly better with non-12-step programs. Generally, these are people who tend to have a more secular belief system or prefer an approach rooted in science. Non-12-step programs do not subscribe to the belief that humans are powerless over addiction, which makes this method better suited for someone who is self-empowered and self-reliant. Since these approaches are evidence-based, the treatments tend to be updated based on the latest findings and research. This can provide access to cutting-edge treatment.

Alternatives to 12-Step Programs

There are several options for people who would prefer non-12-step treatment for their addiction. These alternative paths are diverse, so it’s important to ask questions to determine which one might be right for you.

Here are some of the programs that you might find and what to expect:

  • SMART Recovery: SMART, which stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training, is based on empirical knowledge. It addresses four points key to recovering from substance abuse: motivation, urges, behavior and thought management, and balanced living. Empowerment and self-reliance are leveraged with addiction education based on the most recent scientific discoveries on the topic. This program is all about helping people beat any kind of addiction through positive changes: gambling, sex and/or porn, behavioral, as well as drug and alcohol. They offer in-person and on-line meetings, as well as 24-hour chatrooms which encourage positive lifestyles.
  • Women for Sobriety: If you’re a woman who would prefer your addiction treatment to be with people of the same gender, Women for Sobriety is a viable option for you. Their focus is on the following keys: positivity, happiness, responsibility, love, emotional well-being, and spiritual growth. The purpose of the program is to empower women to be in charge of their own lives. Women are encouraged to use affirmations to recognize and appreciate their lives and self-worth.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety: Also known as S.O.S., this is an anonymous program open to people from all walks of life and all belief (or non-belief) systems. It is a science-backed approach and uses multiple addiction theories. Similar to other non-12-step approaches, this one is based on individual empowerment. There are no fees or hidden costs to join S.O.S.
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery: This program is also open to anyone with any background who is ready to tackle his or her addiction to drugs or alcohol. What is different with this program’s approach is that it recognizes that each individual’s experience is unique, hence his or her treatment and recovery will be unique as well. This program centers on education, personal growth, and empowerment. Each person develops his or her recovery path, fine-tunes it, and is encouraged to share it with others.
  • Web-Based Support Groups: Sometimes you just need to connect with others who understand the struggles of recovery from addiction. Web-based groups offer 24/7 access to chat with people worldwide, anonymously. This can help you recognize that you are not alone when it comes to seeking treatment and dealing with substance abuse. Do keep in mind if you choose to use a website for support that this does not replace in-person addiction treatment. Also, since people are anonymous, you could encounter someone who is not truthful or is looking to scam members. Be mindful of any activity, questions, or behaviors that seem unscrupulous. Do try to find a group that is well-monitored and hosted by a credible source.
  • Individual Coaching or Counseling: Some people avoid getting help for addictions because it means being part of a group. Don’t let this deter you! There are board-certified counselors who specialize in addiction treatment and substance abuse. There are costs involved with most one-on-one counseling programs, though your insurance might cover all or part of this depending on your coverage and the counselor you select. There are also some volunteer options for individual counseling that can be free of charge. Check also with community programs, churches, or other organizations dedicated to fighting drug abuse. They may have some suggestions on or offer individual counseling programs that, if not free, are significantly less expensive than private therapy. Another option to consider is peer recovery programs, which are like a sponsor, but without the meetings.
  • Luxury Treatment Centers: There are spa-like treatment centers, like Passages in Malibu, that specialize in addiction recovery. These places offer various treatment programs in stunning surroundings (like beaches!). They are generally at the top end of the cost scale, which tends to put them out of reach for anyone with limited insurance coverage or funds.

12-Step and Non-12 Step treatment programs can help with addiction

Help Deciding on Which Treatment Program Is Best for You

Now that you’ve reviewed your options for treatment, your head is likely spinning trying to decide which path is best for you. Here’s a piece of advice: don’t try to make sense of it by yourself. Instead, get an expert’s opinion. You can start by asking your general practitioner or another medical expert for advice. You might check with volunteer groups like Catholic Charities or others who could point you in the right direction.

There are also toll-free, cost-free services that assist with finding the right rehabilitation program. The way they work is you call an 800 number and speak with counselors who will talk you through the process, discuss your options, and use their expertise to help you sift through the red tape to get placed. These individuals are trained to understand the different facets of addiction and recovery. They’ll get details about you and your situation, and make recommendations based on what best suits your unique needs. These options are generally available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Knowing You Need Help Is the First Step

Simply recognizing it’s time to get help is the first step toward recovery. If you’re taking that step, you should be proud of yourself. Too many people wait too long.

Remember each program has its strengths and weakness. For some people, a faith-based approach like a 12-step program works well with their belief systems. This is especially true of people who believe in submitting to and trusting in a high power. Others find empowering oneself and regaining control over their own lives is a far more effective way to deal with their addiction. There are number of options available, which means there is a way that will work best for you. More importantly, there is help available. Take it.

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