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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Another Look at Alcoholic's Anonymous

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 25th 2012

Another Look at Alcoholic's AnonymousThere continues to be a lot of controversy around Alcoholic's Anonymous (AA) and other twelve step programs. Those who are advocates for AA insist that they were able to end their abuse of alcohol because of their attendance at AA. The critics of AA insist that it is cultist and puts too much emphasis on religion, particularly Christianity and on submitting to a higher authority, God. These are just a few of the pros and cons related to AA. Here, at, we have a blog about AA where critics and advocates have been able to give voice to their opinions, including their personal experiences with this twelve step program. Needless to say, very heated arguments have ensued which, from time to time, have been very difficult to mediate because people are so passionate about the issue. This particular blog was written by Mark Dombeck and is titled "A Better Meeting." It can be found, with all of the comments and controversy at:


Dr. Dombeck wrote a related essay on the question of whether or not AA is a cult. This may be found at:


These two essays can give the reader a good review of the belief and concerns of people who fall on either side of the controversy.

A new study was published in the journal, "Substance Abuse." In it 226 alcohol abusing subjects were studied over a ten year period of time. For those readers who are interested, the full article can be found online at:

The researchers point out that twelve step programs are based on the "helper therapy principle (HTP). According to this, those afflicted with life altering disorders are able to help others with the same disorder because they have a very special kind of knowledge and insight, sensitivities and skills with regard to the condition. What this means in terms of AA is that members help one another recover from alcoholism. Members select a senior member or "mentor" to help guide them through the twelve steps and towards sobriety. For purposes of the study, the impact of AA was one of the variables that was measured for those attending AA. "AAH" stands for Alcoholic's Anonymous Helpers. It should be emphasized that not everyone attending AA provides service or even participates in meetings other than passively attending.

As part of the Helper Therapy Principle, members are encouraged to give service to others. This can range from preparing coffee at meetings to becoming a mentor helping others work towards sobriety and more.

A full discussion of the results can be read in the article but, so summarize, it was found that attendance at AA meetings along with providing service to others helped maintain a significant number of people in sobriety as opposed to those who did not actively help others. In other words, there truth to the Helper Therapy Principle that rings true.

The authors stress the fact that there are limitations to this piece of research including the fact that the number of subjects were limited. However, the fact that these people were followed over a ten year period of time means that the results are important. The primary author of the article is clinical psychologist Maria Pagano, PhD who is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

It's important that readers know and understand that AA and other twelve step programs are not to be confused with professional treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Rather, it is something that can be used in conjunction with treatment and as further support after treatment is completed. Other research shows that attending group and/or individual psychotherapy sessions can be of great help to those working towards maintaining their sobriety.

What are your experiences with helping others, whether with regard to addictions or to any other type of illness and problem? Do you see merit in the results of this study or do you believe the anti AA point of view?

Your comments and opinions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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