More could be better when it comes to attending AA meetings


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Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people get and stay sober. A new study explores why the program may have such a good results record for some.

Data from 1,706 people from Project MATCH, a federally funded trial that compared three alcohol treatment programs, was analyzed by researchers. The study participants were randomly assigned to cognitive behavior therapy, motivational enhancement therapy (which encourages people to find their motivation to change and devise a plan to do it), or a 12-step program (all participants could also take part in AA meetings during the study period). The men and women were followed for 15 months and were asked about how much alcohol they consumed, the number of AA meetings they went to, and about their depression symptoms.


Researchers found that those who attended more AA meetings drank less, and less frequently. At the beginning of the study the participants had more depression symptoms than the general public, but those who attended more AA meetings had substantially fewer symptoms--if they weren’t drinking. Those who continued to drink did not show the same lessening of symptoms.

In the study, the authors wrote, ‘AA attendance appears to help individuals to increase abstinence and to reduce the intensity of drinking when lapses do occur, partially by reducing symptoms of negative affect.’

In a news release, lead author John F. Kelly said, ‘Some critics of AA have claimed that the organization’s emphasis on ‘powerlessness’ against alcohol use and the need to work on ‘character defects’ cultivates a pessimistic world view, but this suggests the opposite is true. AA is a complex social organization with many mechanisms of action that probably differ for different people and change over time. Most treatment programs refer patients to AA or similar 12-step groups, and now clinicians can tell patients that, along with supporting abstinence, attending meetings can help improve their mood. Who wouldn’t want that?’ Kelly is an associate professor in the Harvard Medical School department of psychiatry. The study was released online recently in the journal Addiction.

-- Jeannine Stein