Young people and mutual aid – what’s not to like?

April 18, 2021
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Getting connected to others is good for us. Finding new social networks is an important part of many recovery journeys. Mutual aid recovery organisations are key to this process. In the UK, referring to mutual aid is embodied in our National Clinical Guidelines, National Drugs Policies and is endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). There are evidenced ways to get people there more effectively. A few years back researchers took a look[1] at how young people respond to 12-step participation, reasons for not going and reasons for discontinuation.


The authors start out by laying out the evidence for beneficial outcomes of participating in 12-step mutual aid:

Studies in the addiction treatment field have shown that participation in 12-step mutual-help organizations (MHOs) following treatment, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), is related to higher rates of remission from substance use disorder (SUD) and simultaneous reduction in health care costs.

They point out that while several studies support the benefits of 12-step participation, they don’t provide much in the way of guidance in how to get people there and keep them engaged more effectively.


The authors set out four questions to be answered through the study:

  1. What do young adults find most helpful about attending 12-step MHOs? 
  2. What do young adults like least about attending 12-step meetings? 
  3. What reasons do young adults report for discontinuing 12-step group attendance?
  4. If a young adult never attended a 12-step meeting, what are some of the reasons for not attending?

The study recruited 302 young adults (18-24 years) going into a residential treatment programme in the USA. Almost three quarters were male. Patients were interviewed on admission, on discharge and at 3, 6 and 9 months post discharge with good follow-up rates.

Drugs used

The most commonly reported “drug of choice” was alcohol (28.1%) and marijuana (28.1%), followed by heroin or other opiates (22.2%), cocaine or crack (12.3%), and amphetamines (6.0%). Small proportions reported benzodiazepines (2.0%), hallucinogens (1.0%), or ecstasy (1.0%) as their drug of choice.


Around a third of the young people had been to a 12-step meeting on entry to treatment. What about on follow-up?

At the 3-month follow-up assessment, 87.6% of the sample (n=212) attended at least one 12-step meeting in the past three months, 81.0% of the sample (n=175) attended at least one meeting in the three months prior to the 6-month follow-up assessment, and 75.5% of the sample (n=162) attended at least one meeting in the three months prior to the 12-month follow-up assessment.

What was most helpful?

  • Removing a sense of isolation
  • Validating experiences
  • A sense of belonging, acceptance and validation
  • Installation of hope (being inspired/encouraged by another member who has a similar problem). 
  • Altruism (members help and support each other). 

12-step specific responses were rare leading the authors to conclude that ‘general group therapy factors were more important to these young adults in early recovery/post-treatment.’

What did they like least?

  • Meeting structure (length, repetition)
  • Having to motivate oneself to get there

Interestingly, less than 1% of young people found meetings unhelpful.

Why did they stop going?

  • Logistical barriers (e.g. lack of transport)
  • Low recovery motivation and interest

Why did some never attend?

  • Didn’t need treatment
  • Don’t have a problem

Key quotes from the paper

“These findings are in line with research that has found that the social aspect of MHOs is associated with long-term abstinence by increasing positive types of support and promoting engagement in larger recovery networks”

“Clinicians can highlight that 12-step specific content was rarely cited as a reason for discontinuing 12-step attendance among young adults”

“Findings may inform and enhance strategies intended to engage young people with community-based recovery focused 12-step MHOs and ultimately improve recovery outcomes”


If the study were repeated in the UK, then I think we would see that fewer young people had ever been to a mutual aid meeting. We know that there is often a broken bridge between treatment and recovery communities. Then there is the fact that differences in culture mean that we can’t simply translate this research from across the Atlantic.

It’s encouraging that the vast majority of young people found 12-step meetings to be of help in recovery. Some of the obstacles the research uncovered can be tackled as the paper suggests. 

Prejudices against 12-step mutual aid continue in the UK even in the face of the strength of the evidence and professional attitudes can and do act as a barrier to access. Despite cultural discrepancy, this study should encourage us to try harder to get young clients in treatment engaged with 12-step and other forms of mutual aid like SMART and LifeRing.

Note: this is an updated version of an earlier blog post.

Continue the discussion on Twitter: @DocDavidM

[1] Labbe AK, Slaymaker V, Kelly JF. Toward enhancing 12-step facilitation among young people: a systematic qualitative investigation of young adults’ 12-step experiences. Subst Abus. 2014;35(4):399-407. doi: 10.1080/08897077.2014.950001. PMID: 25102256; PMCID: PMC4268407.

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