Asking “does AA work for everyone?” is like asking if everyone has the same fingerprint. Of course not! Every human is unique in their biology, how they were raised, and how they react to medications, therapies, and certain situations. Similarly to how you can never know for sure if someone will struggle with addiction until they do, you will never know if AA will work for someone until they try it.
The Success of Alcoholics Anonymous
How many people does AA work for? Although we know AA will not be the answer for every single individual who struggles with alcoholism, we do know that it helps some people. Additionally, measuring success is not black and white. Is success 1 year sober, 5 years sober, or a lifetime of sobriety? Moreover, can we say the program is successful if someone attends meetings for the first year or so of their sobriety and then stops attending meetings but still maintains their sobriety?
Self-reported Statistics on AA
In 2014, Alcoholics Anonymous conducted a survey of its members. Members were not required to participate, and the survey ended up with approximately 6,000 participants. One question on the survey asked how long the member had been sober1. The results were as follows:
- 27% – Less Than 1 Year
- 42% – Between 1 and 5 Years
- 13% – Between 5 and 10 Years
- 14% – Between 10 and 20 Years
- 22% – Over 20 years
In the Big Book, the program also claims a 50% success rate and that 25% remain sober after some relapses.
Outside Studies on Alcoholics Anonymous
In addition to the surveys and statistics provided by AA, outside groups have preformed studies to try and provide an unbiased understanding of the program’s success. One study was published under the Alcohol Research Current Reviews (ARCR). This was a long-term study that looked at individuals who received formal treatment, informal treatment (AA), and no treatment at all. The study followed up with these individuals after 1 year, 3 years, and 8 years following their initial sobriety. The results were as follows:
- Of the participants who entered AA on their own, half were still sober after 1 year and 3 years, but a fourth of the participants had maintained their sobriety as of the 8-year follow up.
- 46% of individuals who had formal treatment and 49% who attended AA meetings were sober at the 8-year follow-up.
- For some, attending AA meetings was associated with long-term sobriety, but not for all.
Although these were limited studies, they do show that some success is seen with 12 Step programs, but it is not a perfect solution for all. Also, studies have shown that formal treatment and AA meetings together provide better success than one of these programs on their own.
Limitations of 12 Step Programs
Why does AA not work for everyone? Admittedly, there are some limitations to AA meetings and the 12 Step program. These limitations often receive criticism, but studies more often show that AA helps. With that, take these limitations with a grain of salt.
Loosely Structured Addiction Support
Although 12 step programming does follow a structure, this structure is not strictly enforced. Individuals groups may adjust the way they operate depending on the individual group’s needs. Although many see this as a benefit, it can also be viewed as a limitation. It leaves lots of room for practices that are not proven or evidence-based. These programs are not usually run by trained professionals and they may say or do something a professional may advise against. This brings me to the 2nd major limitation…
Not Formal or Professional Treatment
From the group leaders to the sponsors, AA meetings are not usually made up of people who have any professional experience or training in addiction treatment. The members and leaders work off of their own personal experiences with addiction. As everyone is different and has their own unique experiences with addiction, one cannot necessarily apply their experience and what worked for them to others. Some argue that the lack of formal training could be detrimental, or even dangerous.
Alternatives to AA
There are alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous for those who do not feel that the program is for them. In addition to traditional 12 Step programs, there are alternatives for people who are not religious.
- AA Agnostics is a group for people who may be spiritual but do not believe in God in for traditional fashion.
- Formal Addiction Treatment Programs provide a variety of treatment programs from residential treatment to outpatient treatment. Although some do incorporate the 12 steps as a part of their treatment programming, not all do. Others have non-12 step programming and group meetings.
- SMART Recovery is another alternative approach to addiction treatment which many turn to when 12 step programs do not work for them.
At Find Recovery, we know that the answer to “Does AA work for everyone?” is “No”. We also know that AA does work for many. This is a part of why we hope to provide struggling addicts with as many resources as possible. Our goal is to, you guessed it: help you Find Recovery. Check out our directory of Treatment Centers and AA meetings near you to find the recovery path right for you!