The Role of Peer Support Groups in Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are the most well-known support groups within the recovery world.  Since the development of AA in the 1930’s, many individuals suffering from a substance use disorder have credited their recovery success to help found in the rooms of a 12-step program.  While AA and NA remain the most widely attended support groups, there are a variety of other groups that can also support long-term recovery goals. The role of peer support groups in recovery can be part of any phase of recovery and are widely accessible in most areas.

What are Support Groups?

Support groups are typically an integral part of recovery programs.  Support groups allow individuals going through similar experiences to share their feelings, coping strategies, or hardships with one another.  For many people, support groups fill the gap between clinical treatments and the on-going need for emotional support outside of a structured setting.

Support groups focusing on recovery from a substance use disorder can be led by a trained facilitator, usually a licensed counselor or social worker, but is more often run by a fellow group member who shares the groups’ common experience. 

Recovery oriented support groups are intended to complement the treatment process, rather than replace treatment or therapy.  Recovery support groups provide critical peer support that allows participants to give and receive nonprofessional, nonclinical assistance in an effort to achieve long-term recovery1.

Examples of recovery support groups include:

  • 12-Step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
  • Secular (Non-12-step) groups, such as SMART Recovery
  • Religious support groups, such as Celebrate Recovery

Benefits of Support Groups

Studies have shown that involvement in peer support groups leads to lower rates of relapse and higher rates of satisfaction with treatment1.  Here are some of the primary ways support groups benefit individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder:

  • Diminished feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety, or fatigue
  • Improved coping strategies
  • Enhanced motivation through social accountability
  • Receiving practical feedback about issues related to the recovery process
  • Feelings of empowerment and hope
  • Gaining essential emotional support through open, honest sharing with others
  • Improved understanding of the condition and personal experiences
  • Access to role-models or mentors

While the role of peer support groups in recovery offers a wide array of potential benefits, there are also some risks worth noting. It is suggested that groups who boast a “cure” for addiction, offer inappropriate medical advice, or are dominated by disruptive group members should be avoided.  Support groups are intended to foster a cooperative atmosphere where recovery efforts are enhanced.

What to Expect

If you or a loved one is dealing with a substance use disorder, a support group can help you feel less isolated and offer valuable insight on how others are managing the same issue. Many support groups begin with introductory readings, a brief explanation of the groups’ rules, and some will ask new members to introduce themselves.  If you are uncomfortable attending by yourself, it may help to ask a friend, family member, or other trusted individual to tag along.

The format of the group meeting will vary.  Common formats included discussion, literature study, or a speaker. Do not feel pressure to participate if you aren’t ready.  It’s ok to sit back and observe before jumping in. 

How to Find a Support Group

Your treatment provider, mental health professional, or primary care physician are all great places to begin when looking for a local support group.  You can also search for local groups online. Most organizations have websites and apps that easily allow you to find local meetings.  A few available apps include:

Here is a list of addiction recovery support group databases to get you started:

A Reminder…

The role of peer support groups in recovery can be helpful at any phase of recovery, but they are not meant to replace professional treatment or therapy. Working with qualified professionals in conjunction with support group attendance will help ensure you get holistic care.  If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder, help is available.  Reach out today to learn how we can help.

Resources

  1. Tracy K, Wallace SP. Benefits of peer support groups in the treatment of addiction. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2016 Sep 29;7:143-154. doi: 10.2147/SAR.S81535. PMID: 27729825; PMCID: PMC5047716.