In Defense Of 12 Steps: What Science Really Tells Us About Addiction

The chips AA members receive to mark sobriety. (Randy Heinitz/Flickr)

The chips AA members receive to mark sobriety. (Randy Heinitz/Flickr)

Last week, Radio Boston featured an interview with Dr. Lance Dodes, author of “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry.” Here, two Harvard Medical School professors of psychiatry respond, arguing that Dr. Dodes misrepresents the evidence and that 12-step programs have among the strongest scientific underpinnings of any addiction treatment.

By John F. Kelly and Gene Beresin
Guest Contributors

In a recent WBUR interview, Dr. Lance Dodes discussed his new book, which attempts to “debunk” the science related to the effectiveness of 12-step mutual-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as 12-step professional treatment. He claims that these approaches are almost completely ineffective and even harmful in treating substance use disorders.

What he claims has very serious implications because hundreds of Americans are dying every day as a result of addiction. If the science really does demonstrate that the millions of people who attend AA and similar 12-step organizations each week are really deluding themselves as to any benefit they may be getting, then this surely should be stated loud and clear.

In fact, however, rather than support Dr. Dodes’ position, the science actually supports the exact opposite: AA and 12-step treatments are some of the most effective and cost-effective treatment approaches for addiction.

In his book, Dr. Dodes commits the same misguided offenses he condemns. His critique of the science behind treatment of addiction is deeply flawed, and ironically, his own psychoanalytic model of an approach to solve the “problem of addiction” has no independent scientific proof of effectiveness, particularly in comparison to other methods of treatment.

Below, we address some of the specific pronouncements he made on Radio Boston and in his book in order to convey what well-conducted science actually tells us about how to treat addiction.

What he says: 12-Step programs do not work, are not backed by science, and are probably harmful.

The evidence is overwhelming that AA, and treatments that facilitate patients’ engagement with groups like AA, are among the most effective and best studied treatments for helping change addictive behavior.

This conclusion is consistent with the views of prominent organizations such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System (VAHCS), all of whom recommend patients’ participate in AA or similar groups to aid recovery.

Dr. Dodes begins his criticism of AA and related treatment by citing a 1991 study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. This paper studied the treatment of a large number of individuals with alcohol problems. Dr. Dodes notes in his book that compulsory inpatient treatment had a better outcome than AA alone. But what he fails to mention is that the inpatient unit is a 12-step-based program with AA meetings during treatment, and requirements to attend AA meetings three times a week after discharge in the year following treatment.

Importantly, too, when you compare the alcohol outcomes (average number of daily drinks, number of drinks per month, number of binges, and serious symptoms of alcohol use), AA alone was just as good as the AA-based inpatient treatment. Yet Dr. Dodes uses this study to argue that AA is poor while inpatient treatment is good — a bizarrely distorted, misleading and incorrect interpretation of the study’s findings.

Dr. Dodes then cites a review article from another prestigious entity, the Cochrane Collaboration, to condemn AA and 12-step treatment. The Cochrane group is considered by health professionals to be the “gold standard” of good scientific procedure in its series of reviews. The article reviewed 8 studies from 1991-2004, comparing AA and 12-step treatment to other approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention therapies.

He concludes from this important paper that AA and 12-step treatment were ineffective. However, the study actually concluded that AA and 12-step treatment were shown to be as effective as anything else to which they were compared.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his apparent agenda, Dr. Dodes doesn’t acknowledge the more recent randomized controlled trials of addiction treatment (that is, studies in which individuals with addictions were randomly assigned to different treatment approaches, comparing outcomes. See here, here, and here. Such studies are considered the most reliable sort of research.) These studies show that 12-step treatment improves outcomes by up to 20% for as long as two years post-treatment via its ability to engage patients, and also tends to produce much higher rates of continuous abstinence than other forms of treatment.

Finally, in the largest randomized controlled study of treatment for alcohol use disorder ever undertaken (Project MATCH), which he does mention, he fails to state that compared to the cognitive-behavioral and motivational-enhancement treatments included in that study, the 12-step treatment had more than double the number of patients who were continuously abstinent at one year after treatment and about one third more at three years after treatment.

What he does not mention: cost or access to care

Dr. Dodes fails to mention cost. Unlike psychoanalysis and other treatments, AA is free, and can be accessed almost anywhere at any time in the United States and many other countries (notably at high-risk relapse times when professionals are not available like weekends, holidays, and evenings.)

In fact, studies published in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals have found that 12-step treatments that facilitate engagement with AA post-discharge can not only produce about one third higher continuous abstinence rates, but also 64% lower health care costs compared to cognitive-behavioral treatments.

With the current pressure to configure a leaner and more cost-effective health care system, it is these kinds of double bonus effects that we are looking for.

What he says: 12-step programs are no better than doing nothing.

In addition, Dr. Dodes then goes on to try and make the case that 12-step treatment for substance use disorder is no better than doing nothing; he’s apparently implying that if we actually just stood back and waited, people with substance use disorders would overcome addiction at the same rate as our current best efforts. Presumably, his own approach to addiction treatment would work best? Unfortunately, his own method, promoted on the air and in his book, has not a single scientific study to demonstrate its effectiveness.

What he says: 12-step programs are no more than “religious” efforts that reinforce powerlessness and helplessness

Dr. Dodes’ book and comments are so far off the track of scientific research that he doesn’t realize that for the past several years, the addiction research field has moved beyond asking whether AA and 12-step treatment works, to investigating how and why they work. We have now discovered that the reason why 12-step based interventions so often do better than others is that they engage people with groups like AA, which increase people’s ability to cope with the demands of recovery, and foster critically important social network changes within the communities in which they live every day.

For some, AA also has been shown to work by increasing spirituality, which helps people reframe and take a different viewpoint on stress, such that instead of being seen as a negative it becomes viewed as the fertilizer that fuels personal growth.

Dr. Dodes complains that AA’s focus on admitting powerlessness over one’s addiction is a step in seeking a “higher power” and he interprets this literally as seeking God. For some, this is true and helpful. For others, particularly those for whom spirituality is not appealing, it is seeking help from the AA fellowship (for some “GOD” can stand for “Group Of Drunks, or ‘Good Orderly Direction’), and acknowledging that you cannot solve the problem alone; you need what Carl Jung called “the protective wall of human community.” Strength comes from assuming personal accountability and responsibility to a group, your AA sponsor and, most importantly, to yourself. This process empowers individuals to make the changes needed for recovery.

What he says: Genetics does not play a role in addictions. They are not diseases.

In a blog on the Dodes webpage, there is an assertion that genetics has no role in addictions. This assertion once again contradicts scientific evidence. Research demonstrates that about half of the risk for addiction is conferred by genetics. But the environment is critical too. Like many diseases, the condition is caused by a personal biological vulnerability coupled with environmental exposure and experiences.

In summary, while claiming to “debunk the bad science behind 12-step programs” Dr. Dodes instead reveals a selective and superficial review of the research, at times misinterpreting the studies that he uses to support his own assertions. From a clinician who professes to care about individuals suffering from addiction, Dr. Dodes’ conclusions are not only incorrect, they may have grave consequences.

For the families who have a loved one struggling with addiction, life is beyond tragic. Nights are sleepless while many wait for the proverbial shoe to drop. Will someone be killed by your son, daughter or spouse getting behind the wheel? Will you get the often-awaited call in the middle of the night that your child was found dead in her apartment? We know these stories. We hear them on the news daily.

What can we do to prevent the scourge of addiction? And what can we do when it appears in a family member? Surely we all want a magic bullet. But we also want care that is based on sound scientific research and evidence-based treatments. There are no cures. But there is hope for recovery, sobriety, and, while AA and 12-step treatments are not cure-alls themselves, research demonstrates that they are some of the most effective and cost-effective approaches to addressing chronic diseases of addiction in our society.

John F. Kelly, PhD., is the Elizabeth R. Spallin Associate Professor of Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the President of the American Psychological Association, Society of Addiction Psychology. He is also the Director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Gene Beresin, MD, MA, is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Health Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Lance Dodes responds in the comments section below here; please watch the comments section for further back-and-forth.  

 

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