What’s the power in a group? The role of support groups in addiction recovery

Looking to join a support group? We take an insider’s look into how support groups have been SHOWN to aid addiction recovery. More here.

minute read

You don’t need to walk the road alone…

Staying clean after completing a treatment program may be one of the biggest challenges you face in your life. Ongoing support is crucial for each person that is trying to maintain a clean and sober life. But what does research say about the best use of support groups? Why are support groups so important? And what guidelines should you use when looking for one?

Empathy at the center of support

Addiction support groups do not provide formal treatment, but they are often recommended by professionals to aid the treatment process and are essential to addiction recovery. In fact, the importance of an addiction support group should never be underestimated. Participation in a group generates positive attitudes towards addiction treatment. People in support groups are often able to find new and unique ways to deal with their problems. And most people, men and women both, need social support to be able to deal with their lives in early recovery.

Q: What’s at the heart of the efficacy of support groups?
A: Empathy.

When a person truly suffers, s/he is looking to be heard. We like to know that we are not alone in dealing with such a problem. This may seem like an obvious fact, but having someone share a story very similar to yours in front of other people, makes you see your own problem through different eyes; it gives you a different perspective. Although sharing your own story in front of group of strangers seem really awkward and uncomfortable at first, with time, it makes you develop new skills to be able to relate to others and discuss your own feelings.

But we still had questions….

To be able to better understand the role and the importance of a support group in addiction recovery, we’ve looked to the experts. To answer our questions, today with us is Treena Haase, Program Director of Living Free Recovery Services. She will talk some more about the benefits and limitations of support groups, and why people are actually attending them. Also, she’ll explain what should a person look for in a support group, and what kind of questions to as when seeking a support group.

Read through the whole interview to find out more. Then, we invite YOUR experience with support groups at the end. Share your stories in the comments section below. Additionally, feel free to post any questions you may have about support groups, and we will try to provide you with a quick, personal response.

ADDICTION BLOG: What’s the main attraction of a support group in addressing drug or alcohol addiction?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: The main attraction of a support group in addressing drug or alcohol addiction is that it offers an open and non-threatening environment for a variety of people to explore the issue of recovery.

ADDICTION BLOG: Why do people attend support groups?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: People attend support groups for a number of reasons, but we find these to be the primary motivations.

  1. Most are community based meetings that are free, open and available to anyone.
  2. Support groups allow people who may be contemplating recovery or early in their recovery to be able to participate at a level they feel comfortable with vs. treatment or therapy with higher requirements for engagement and participation.
  3. Support groups offer continuing care in MAINTAINING sobriety for those who are completing treatment.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the main benefits of a support group? What are some of the limitations?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: Benefits of a support group include:

  • Non-threatening environment (facilitated by volunteers rather than counselors)
  • Peer support comes from people with whom you can identify
  • New friendships
  • Expansion of an individual’s sober support network
  • A sense of belonging

Limitations of a support group include:

  • May not be a sufficient structure for someone who has not yet quit or received treatment.
  • Volunteer leaders may be limited in their ability to spot a more serious problem or refer them to professionals/treatment if needed.
  • A lower level of accountability in that the groups are not required.
  • An individual needs to be somewhat motivated to attend consistently.
  • Tend to have larger numbers than a therapy group, and sometimes it is hard for all the participants to get the time they need to share.

ADDICTION BLOG: Who “runs” a support group? What kind of training is required of this person to have?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: Most support groups are run by volunteers, and they are people in recovery themselves. It is a peer-helping-peer structure. Most support groups have a requirement for a minimum length of sobriety.

While I can’t speak on behalf of AA, the support group facilitators at our facility need to have a least one year of sobriety, have been involved or graduated from our programming, and have completed six months of consistent service within the support group. Leaders are developed from the volunteer base.

Most people begin as a co-leader and slowly increase in responsibility. Leaders participate in training discussions after each group along with monthly training from the Program Director. While training is important, we have found that a love and compassion for people is a key factor in deciding who would qualify to facilitate a support group.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some benchmark studies which have reported on the efficacy of support groups in the treatment of addiction?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: This is a tough question to answer.

I can’t identify really any benchmark studies. The research and results are sketchy. Most studies have been focused on AA and 12-step groups and exclude other types of sober support groups. Many studies are based on attendance, but that isn’t always an accurate reflection of participation.

Most research is consistent in reporting that individuals who continue to attend support groups over a longer interval are more likely to maintain abstinence than are individuals who stop attending. The heart of the debate over research that is out there is about the quality of evidence.

ADDICTION BLOG: What’s the trend in support group attendance over the past decade? Where do you think it’s going?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: I think support group attendance continues to be encouraged by most substance abuse professionals, therapists, insurance providers, corrections personnel and family members. It continues to be a community service that is easily accessed and utilized as most are free of cost and convenient.

In the past decade, there has been creation of support groups that offer alternatives to AA. There has been expansion of the Celebrate Recovery groups that offer a faith-based approach and follow a Christian-based, 12-step structure rather than a general “Higher Power.” Other community based Recovery Churches have also started across the country.

What is currently trending is the use of technology and social media. Individuals are able to receive online support through apps, blogs, and video conferencing. This type of support appeals to those possibly who are intimidated by the group setting or are in rural areas and are unable to easily attend actual support groups. Technology also allows for daily support verses the weekly support usually offered by a support group.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the important governing principles of support groups?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: With any substance abuse service, confidentiality is always at the top of the list as a governing principle. Most support group meetings will explain this expectation at the beginning of any and all meetings. It is crucial for individuals to feel that their information is not being shared outside the group.

Of course, the term “support” describes the principle of the group. Support also includes providing an environment of acceptance and free of judgment. Facilitators are not there to give direct advice but, instead, help them explore their own decision-making process.

Balance is also a key principle in a support group. There is never enough time for everyone to talk about every issue. It is important for facilitators and participants to understand the proper balance of talking, listening, and offering feedback.

ADDICTION BLOG: How often does an effective support group meet?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: In my experience, I have found that most support groups meet one time per week, although there may be multiple days in which the group is available. Members tend to attend the same group for consistency in their schedules, and so they can develop peer relationships. Many attendees may also be attending treatment services at the same time and only have the availability to attend weekly.

ADDICTION BLOG: How can someone find a support group in their community that is outside of the more common 12-step model?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: As stated above, Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step model but modified to fit Christianity. The Celebrate Recovery website has a meeting finder section to help people locate meetings in their areas.

Local treatment facilities and county social service agencies typically also have a database of community resources. The government organization of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is a valuable resource for finding any type of substance related services.

ADDICTION BLOG: How can you find out more information about the objectivity of a support group and their operation? What kinds of questions should you ask?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: In general, the best way to find out more information about a support group is to attend.

Many people are drawn to different leader personalities or facilitation styles and may visit several groups before finding one they like. There is no required commitment, so it is easy to check out many different groups. Some may prefer a group that is more participatory while others are more drawn to teaching type meetings. Generally, there will not be any phone number listed in order to get questions answered in advance. Ideally attending and following up with the leader about any questions would be the best.

ADDICTION BLOG: How does a faith based support group differ from the 12 Step model?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: I have found that most traditional 12-step groups are based on a more generic Higher Power that allows for a gathering of people of all faiths and beliefs. Faith-based support groups are generally specific in that the Higher Power is God and Jesus Christ. Many faith-based groups continue to use a 12-step model but simply replace the term Higher Power with God. Faith-based support groups also may offer an opportunity for prayer and discussion of biblical principles.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are the main dangers or risks of attending a support group?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: A few risks of attending a support group may include running into others that an individual has used drugs or alcohol with in the past, coming in contact with people that may still actively be using chemicals and is offering use to other participants or the possibility of participants not keeping information confidential.

A different type of risk is that some people who may be more appropriate for treatment services may try to use a support group as a replacement, and they don’t truly get the help they need. Facilitators are not trained counselors and may not recognize or know what to do with an individual like this.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

LIVING FREE RECOVERY SERVICES: Living Free Recovery Services is committed to offering hope and unconditional love to individuals and families impacted by chemical use.  Lasting change starts from the inside; therefore, we provide powerful principles of recovery along with a faith-based approach, resulting in lifelong freedom and achievement of one’s full potential.

Living Free Recovery Services is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and employs Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors.  For more information about our program, please feel free to visit our website at www.recovery.lwcc.org or call us at 763-315-7170.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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