Reasons Why People Find Peer Support Groups for Addiction Valuable
In addition to traditional therapies and medication-assisted treatment, recovering addicts and alcoholics still find peer support group participation to be helpful on the road to sobriety. Despite this, research into how social support groups work to facilitate addiction recovery is limited.
In January of 2016, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) estimated the group had nearly 2,090,000 members globally. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) does not have a record of meeting attendance but estimates around 67,000 meetings per week in close to 140 countries.
But without professionally led therapy, what makes AA successful in helping others remain abstinent? It is the peer aspect, of sharing similar experiences? Does it have something to do with self-help?
Daniel Frings, a London-based social psychologist, sought to answer these questions. He decided to conduct a study that could look deeper into why recovery groups are so popular, and what exactly people garner from the support.
For the study, Frings examined the dynamics of support groups for recovery using a theoretical explanation of addiction recovery maintenance; moreover, the Social Identity Model of Cessation Maintenance (SIMCM).
This model, in essence, purports that support is gained by people who are attempting to alter their behavior through reliance on social identities related to abstinence.
Frings looked at 44 participants from AA, NA, Cocaine Anonymous (CA) and SMART Recovery. Members were aged 22-63 and were asked to list the objectives of the groups and the kinds of behaviors they deemed acceptable or deviant in the groups. They were then asked to rate different responses to the deviant behaviors.
Members reported multiple social “triggers” that prompted them into treatment. Among these included how they were perceived by society and references to being an addict. Member objectives included cessation of substance use, to get or stay abstinent, to assist others in their endeavors to get or stay abstinent, and convey the group’s message to others.
The price of relapse to both the individual and the group was also measured, in addition to member’s beliefs in their ability to achieve abstinence. Also, information about the extent of group identification by members was measured.
Following two months of data collection, Frings discovered that persons who highly identified with their peer support groups and other members exhibited significantly more concern about relapse.
“We found some interesting links…those that identified highly with the group also perceived more social support. Also, we found that the more people identified with the group, the greater they perceived the cost of a relapse to be both to themselves and to the group. We interpret that finding as being a protective factor; having that group identity gives you a way of understanding lapses and relapses.”
“I think the fundamental message is that self-help groups can be incredibly supportive. They help people understand events such as relapse in a protective way, and when people make mistakes, the group usually wants to help them rather than punish or exclude them.”
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology