Social support groups (or simply "support groups") refer to groups of people who meet to share their common problems and experiences. Support groups are not the same as therapy groups. Trained professional facilitate therapy groups with a specific therapeutic purpose. In contrast, support groups are led by non-professional volunteers.
With respect to addictions recovery, support groups can divided into two basic types:
1) Self-empowering support groups: These groups believe in the power of individuals to heal themselves. These groups are not as well known as the second type.
2) 12-step support groups: These groups typically end in the word "anonymous." The most well known group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These support groups believe in the powerlessness of individuals to heal themselves. Instead, these groups attribute this power to a supernatural being, presence, or force called a "higher power." This high-power is often referred to as God.
First, we will review several self-empowering support groups. In the following section on the Spiritual Approaches to Addictions Recovery we will review and discuss 12-step groups.
Self-empowering support groups and12-step support groups are in many ways complete opposites. 12-step support groups emphasize individual powerlessness over addiction, while encouraging a belief in a power greater than oneself. The powerfulness of a "higher power" is believed to be capable of "restoring sanity." Many, if not most people interpret the term "higher power" to mean God. Conversely, self-empowering support groups emphasize the power of each individual to triumph over their difficulties. This includes addiction. These groups stress the importance of personal responsibility and ownership of both the problem and the solution. A belief in a God or higher power is neither encouraged, nor discouraged.
These differences should not be minimized. Self-empowering groups promote self-reliance and self-empowerment as the solution to addiction problems. 12-step groups consider the over-reliance on self to be the primary source of problems for addicted persons. This often manifests as an overly grandiose sense of self-importance. These differences form the basis for a great deal of unnecessary controversy. Each person's path to addiction is different. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that each person's road to recovery will be different as well. More information about the conflict between these two approaches can be found in the section entitled, Conflict between 12-Step Anonymous Groups and Science.
Self-empowering support groups fill a crucial need for support groups that are non-religious. This has become particularly important given recent court decisions about the illegality of court mandated 12-step attendance. Historically, judges throughout the United States have made court mandated attendance at 12-step groups a requirement of a person's reduced sentencing. Other officers of the United States court, such as probation and parole officers, have similarly required attendance at 12-step meetings. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads, "Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Beginning in 1996, five US Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal ruled that AA and other 12-step groups are religious enough that the government or its agents may not require someone to attend them. The court can require attendance at a recovery-oriented support group. It just may not specify a religious one. Therefore, self-empowering recovery groups offer an important alternative for people who wish to avoid prison, but who also wish to avoid participation in a religious group.
It appears it will take some time before the legal system fully implements this law. The rulings were made in the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th and 9th Circuits and apply in 25 states. By precedent, the rulings presumably apply in all states. Several state supreme courts made similar rulings. The US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the 2nd Circuit ruling. The court's inaction suggests that these rulings will stand and not be over-turned later by a Supreme Court ruling. If the courts fully implement these rulings, it could prevent the purchase of AA publications with government funds. A lack of knowledge of these rulings can have severe consequences. In a recent ruling in the 9th Circuit, September 2007, the court found a parole officer could be held personally liable for the premature death of Buddhist parolee. He was sent back to prison for refusing to attend 12-step oriented treatment. The parolee died while serving a prison term that he should not have been serving.
12-step support groups are widely available and undoubtedly effective for some. Still, many people are dissatisfied or uncomfortable with these groups. The self-empowering support groups are less well known. Furthermore, they may not be available in all communities. Self-empowering groups may be just as effective as 12-step groups. As we have emphasized throughout, recovery is about matching the person to the recovery approach. This requires a diverse range of recovery choices. Self-empowering approaches have certainly contributed to this diversity. Although self-empowering support groups may not be available in many locations, most are quite accessible via the Internet. Some are not directly applicable to activity addictions but people can modify them as they see fit.