12-Step Programs May Work Better If Participant Has Religious Background

Teenagers in drug treatment programs show more improvement if they help others and participate in the religious pursuits, according to a new study from Case Western University.

Professor Maria Pagano and her colleagues studied 93 male and 102 female juvenile offenders, ages 14 to 18 years old, who were undergoing court-ordered substance abuse treatment in Ohio. Over 90% had been abusing marijuana, and 60% had alcohol dependency disorders. Their treatment program was based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which participants work through twelve steps in order to achieve not only abstinence from drugs and alcohol but also spiritual growth.

Dr. Pagano’s team interviewed the teenagers during their first ten days of treatment, and then two months later as they were being discharged.

Helping others improved four out of seven treatment outcomes, including lessening two types of craving symptoms and narcissistic entitlement, and increasing psychosocial functioning. Those who spent more time in prayer, worship, meditation and other spiritual pursuits were more likely to help others during their treatment programs. Dr. Pagano concluded that coming from a religious background may give participants an advantage when they work through 12- step programs, which have a basis in spiritual principles.

“Our findings indicate that service participation in 12-step programs can reduce the craving symptoms experienced by adolescents in treatment for alcohol and/or drug addiction,” Dr. Pagano reported. “We found that substance-dependent adolescents with greater religious backgrounds participate more during treatment in 12-step programs of recovery, which leads to better health outcomes. Because most religions encourage altruistic behaviors, youth entering treatment with greater religious backgrounds may have an easier time engaging in service. In turn, youth entering treatment with low or no religious backgrounds may require greater 12-step facilitation or a different approach to derive equal benefit from treatment.”

The study appears in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.