What are substance abuse support groups?
If you’re trying to give up drugs, peer support groups, also known as recovery support or mutual self-help groups, can be an invaluable source of guidance, assistance, and encouragement. Peer support groups are regular gatherings of people trying to overcome a substance abuse issue. These groups either meet online or in person, and group discussion is usually led by a facilitator who also has experience with addiction.
Peer groups provide emotional support by connecting you with others who can relate to your experiences and empathize with your struggle. Hearing other people’s stories can help reduce feelings of shame or isolation. And meeting others who’ve faced the same challenges can motivate and inspire you on your own journey of recovery.
People who participate in peer support groups also tend to benefit from improved coping skills. Spending time with others in the same situation may help you find new ways to ease stress, identify your triggers, and reduce cravings.
Depending on the peer support group you choose, the program itself might provide you with goals, structure, and social activities. People in peer support groups celebrate sobriety milestones with each other, and many even become lifelong friends.
How effective are peer support groups?
Determining the true effectiveness of recovery support groups is difficult for several reasons. First, some organizations don’t track statistics, but instead determine success by listening to direct feedback. Secondly, many people who participate in these groups also rely on other forms of treatment, such as medication or therapy, which makes it harder to weigh the actual impact of peer support in their recovery.
However, some studies point to a connection between participation in self-help groups and abstinence. Many factors can influence the effectiveness of a program, such as consistent and frequent attendance and participation in group activities.
Peer support for drug addiction vs. addiction counseling
The people you meet in peer support groups have struggled with addiction themselves. While the group leaders or moderators have personal experience with substance abuse, they may not have professional training.
Addiction counseling, on the other hand, takes place under the guidance of a mental health professional who may or may not have personal experience with addiction. Addiction counselors undergo advanced education and clinical training in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic techniques.
You don’t necessarily have to choose between peer support and addiction counseling. The two approaches can work in conjunction to aid your recovery.
How to choose a peer support group for substance abuse
You won’t find a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming substance abuse or drug addiction. Just because a certain program worked for a friend or family member doesn’t mean it will necessarily also work for you.
Some personal factors to consider include:
- The severity of your abuse problem. If you have a severe addiction, you might not see as much progress during peer support sessions as someone with a milder substance abuse issue.
- Spirituality. If you join a program or organization that aligns with your personal spiritual or religious beliefs, you might feel more engaged.
- Co-occurring mental health conditions. Experiencing depression or other mental health conditions alongside your addiction can make it more difficult to engage in peer support groups or reduce your motivation to show up regularly.
When choosing a mutual self-help group, you’ll also need to consider the availability of the meetings. Less well-known groups might not have in-person meetings in your local area. However, they might offer online meetings that are convenient to attend.
Whatever your circumstances, by exploring the different peer support options, you can often find a group that can help you on the road to recovery.
Narcotic Anonymous (NA)
Narcotics Anonymous or NA is the most well-known and widely available recovery support group for drug abuse and addiction. Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which is limited to alcohol problems, Narcotics Anonymous is open to substance abuse problems of all kinds.
NA uses fellowship and a set of guided principles—the 12 steps—to help members achieve and maintain sobriety.
The 12-step process includes:
- Admitting that you are powerless to control your addiction or compulsion.
- Recognizing a higher power “as you understand it” that can give strength.
- Reviewing the mistakes you’ve made in the past, with the help of your sponsor.
- Making amends for past mistakes and wrongs.
- Learning how to live a new life, free from old unhealthy habits and ways of behaving.
- Helping fellow drug abusers or addicts.
A key part of a 12-step program is choosing a sponsor. A sponsor is a former addict who has time and experience remaining sober and can provide support when you’re dealing with the urge to use. Research shows that having a sponsor seems to help a person maintain long-term abstinence.
NA members attend group meetings facilitated by other members—all recovering drug abusers. Meetings take place on a regular basis, at various times, and in many different locations around the world. They’re typically held in community spaces, such as churches, but online meetings are also available. Members are free to attend any of the many meetings held each week.
Benefits and limitations
Many people who join NA recovery support groups enjoy the wide availability of sessions, as well as the opportunities to connect with others. The structure of NA can be especially useful for beginners. For example, it’s possible to start with this 12-step program and then begin to incorporate other approaches to create a hybrid treatment plan that works for you.
NA is easily accessible, offering over 70,000 weekly meetings in more than 140 countries.
There are some potential drawbacks, however. Some people don’t agree with the philosophical aspects of NA, such as labeling oneself an addict, committing to total abstinence, or turning to a “higher power” for strength. Others simply feel that the meetings are too unstructured, allowing one person to dominate the conversation. Some also feel unable to venture into certain topics, such as psychiatric medications, during these group sessions.
If Narcotics Anonymous doesn’t work for you, there are other options available.
Different groups have different philosophies about drug addiction treatment and recovery, or cater to those with specific needs. But they can still offer the same benefits of group support.
Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA)
Like NA, Dual Recovery Anonymous is a 12-step group, and those individual steps are the same. However, the organization addresses both substance abuse problems and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Co-occurring disorders, also referred to as dual diagnosis, is a term used when you have both a mental health disorder—such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder—and a drug or alcohol problem. Both the mental health issue and the addiction have their own unique symptoms that may get in the way of your ability to function, handle life’s difficulties, and relate to others. Whether your mental health issue or addiction came first, recovery depends on treating both problems.
To join DRA, you must have a desire to stop using drugs as well as manage your psychiatric issues in a healthy way. In online and in-person meetings, DRA members share their stories, support one another, and develop recovery tools that protect against relapse. Although the group may be more comfortable than NA for those who want to dive into discussions about mental health, DRA meetings aren’t as widely available.
Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is an international organization that takes a science-based, self-empowerment approach to abstinence and recovery from substance addiction. The organization believes that sobriety is a separate issue from religion or spirituality. It credits the individual for achieving and maintaining their own sobriety without reliance on any higher power.
SOS members aim to establish a cycle of sobriety. The cycle involves acknowledging the substance use disorder, accepting the disorder, and then prioritizing sobriety.
Each SOS group is autonomous, and the format of the sessions is determined by the members. However, the groups all strive to provide peer support and offer a nonreligious space where members can express their thoughts about their recovery.
It may be hard to find in-person meetings, depending on your location. However, the network’s official site lists upcoming online meetings.
SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training)
SMART Recovery is a program that aims for abstinence through self-empowerment and self-directed change. The organization follows a four-point program that involves the following:
- Build the motivation to pursue change.
- Learn to cope with the urge to use drugs.
- Manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without turning to addictive substances.
- Develop habits that lead to a balanced, healthy life.
These recovery points can be addressed in any order that works for the individual.
SMART Recovery members participate in online or in-person meetings that are facilitated by trained volunteers or professionals. Structured group discussions give participants an opportunity to share their experiences and exchange feedback. Tools, such as worksheets, and group exercises, such as role-playing, help participants find actionable solutions and build recovery plans.
SMART Recovery doesn’t include sponsors and deemphasizes the role of spirituality. You might find that sessions are more focused on psychoeducation and implementing CBT techniques than social support. Some participants of SMART Recovery sessions also report that the pacing of sessions can be slow and repetitive. However, the results of a 2019 study suggest that SMART might be as effective as 12-step groups.
The organization offers more than 2,000 mutual self-help groups in the U.S. and abroad. You can choose from online and in-person meetings, but the availability of meetings doesn’t match that of NA.
LifeRing Secular Recovery
LifeRing Secular Recovery offers another alternative to 12-step programs. Like SMART, LifeRing takes the focus off of specific steps and religious elements. Instead, the organization encourages members to design their own recovery program based on their unique needs. There’s some evidence that LifeRing may also be as effective as a 12-step program.
LifeRing’s philosophy centers on the “3-S,” short for sobriety, secularity, and self-help. LifeRing’s approach also imagines that each person with substance abuse issues is grappling with an inner conflict: the “addicted self” versus the “sober self”. The sober self calls for freedom from addiction, while the addicted self wants to maintain drug use. During meetings, members of LifeRing hope to reinforce one another’s sobriety goals and empower their sober selves.
You might have a hard time finding in-person LifeRing meetings, as most of them take place in California. But the organization does offer online meetings.
Aside from the options mentioned above, you can also find recovery support groups that focus on specific substances, such as Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, or Marijuana Anonymous, which follow the same 12-step format as Narcotics Anonymous.
When deciding on a group, it’s important to ask, “What feels most comfortable for me?” When you feel aligned with the group’s philosophy and approach, you’re more likely to stay engaged and return for later sessions.
Remember that you don’t have to commit to just a single group. For many people, a plan that involves multiple peer support groups and professional treatments can the best way to achieve and maintain sobriety.
Last updated or reviewed on September 5, 2023