Background: Despite the effectiveness of 12-step groups, most people reporting a prior alcohol use disorder (AUD) do not sustain involvement in such groups at beneficial levels. This highlights the need for research on other mutual help groups that address alcohol problems and may attract those who avoid 12-step groups. The current study addresses this need, offering outcome data from the first longitudinal, comparative study of 12-step groups and their alternatives: The Peer ALlternatives for Addiction (PAL) Study.
Methods: Adults with a lifetime AUD were surveyed at baseline (N=647), 6months (81% response rate) and 12months (83% response rate). Members of the largest known secular mutual help alternatives, namely Women for Sobriety (WFS), LifeRing, and SMART, were recruited in collaboration with group directors; current 12-step attendees were recruited from an online meeting hub. Online surveys assessed demographic and clinical variables; mutual help involvement; and alcohol and drug use and severity. Analyses involved multivariate logistic GEEs separately modelling alcohol abstinence, alcohol problems, and total abstinence across 6 and 12months. Key predictors were baseline primary group affiliation (PGA); primary group involvement (PGI) at both baseline and 6months; and the interaction between baseline PGA and 6-month PGI. The critical effects of interest were the interactions, expressing whether associations between changes in PGI from baseline to 6months and substance use outcomes differed by primary group.
Results: None of the interactions between baseline PGA and 6-month PGI were significant, suggesting no differences in the efficacy of WFS, LifeRing, or SMART, vs. 12-step groups. Nevertheless, some PGA main effects emerged. Compared to 12-step members, those identifying SMART as their primary group at baseline fared worse across outcomes, and those affiliating with LifeRing showed lower odds of total abstinence. Still, these effects became nonsignificant when controlling for baseline alcohol recovery goal, suggesting that any group differences may be explained by selection of those with weaker abstinence motivation into LifeRing and (especially) SMART.
Conclusions: This study makes a valuable contribution in view of the extremely limited evidence on mutual help alternatives. Results tentatively suggest that WFS, LifeRing, and SMART are as effective as 12-step groups for those with AUDs, and that this population has the best odds of success when committing to lifetime total abstinence. An optimal care plan may thus involve facilitating involvement in a broad array of mutual help groups and supporting abstinence motivation.
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