Non 12 Step Rehab vs. AA: What's the Difference?

There is a major treatment gap in medical treatment for addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of the 23 million individuals who need treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, only 11 percent receive treatment at a specialty facility (or 2.6 million people).

Meanwhile, about five million people attend 12-step programs for drug and alcohol abuse every year. That double in the number of individuals seeking help vs. the number receiving medical treatment represents room for improvement.

But isn’t 12-step a form of treatment? Not exactly. 12-step programs are an excellent resource, but it’s important to understand the differences between non 12 step treatment, and programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Understanding Addiction as an Illness

Support groups are critical for the management of any disease. For example, peer support has been shown to significantly improve HbA1c levels in diabetic patients alongside medical treatment. But can you imagine if support groups were employed alone to treat diabetes? Most would agree that medical treatment is necessary to control A1c levels in patients with diabetes, and that support groups can boost the impact of those medications. So why don’t people see addiction the same way?

The truth is, addiction is an illness like diabetes. 12-step programs are extraordinarily helpful as support groups and maintenance care, but they cannot be considered a substitute for evidence-based medical treatment.

What is Non 12 Step Rehab?

There is a solution to fill the gaps left by 12-step programs. To make sure patients are receiving the peer support and the necessary medical treatment, non 12 step rehab programs are an excellent option. These treatment plans provide a secular, evidence-based, multifaceted approach, including:

  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)
  • Counseling Services
  • Family Therapy
  • And more

Unlike 12-step programs, personalized non 12 step therapies aren’t constrained to a single treatment model or treatment plan. As a rehabilitation patient, you would receive the specialized care you need, just as your doctor would work with you to find a diabetes treatment plan that works for you.

Where Does AA Fit In?

Even though 12-step programs like AA or Smart Recovery may not be the best initial treatment for addiction rehabilitation, these programs can still play a very important role in addiction recovery as aftercare or maintenance following medical treatment. In fact, 12-step programs are often focused on maintaining sobriety, so it’s up to the initial treatment program to achieve sobriety in the first place.

In addition, AA and similar programs may not be appropriate for all patients, particularly those without a sponsor or those who are secular. This is not to diminish the importance of peer support – however, having a licensed, clinically-trained addiction specialist is key for initial treatment, which many 12-step programs lack.

Put simply, 12-step programs can be an excellent supplementary tool for those recovering from addiction. But just like with any medical illness, evidence-based, scientific treatment by licensed clinicians should be the first and foremost response.

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