Are 12 Step Meetings Safe For Youth?
Tags: AA AA attendance Adolescents Alcoholics Anonymous meeting safety NA narcotics anonymous outpatient youth
Results from a number of studies have shown that participation in 12-step mutual help groups (MHG) by young people, especially those with more severe substance use problems, produces benefits at clinically meaningful levels. One such study found that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) participation during the first 3 months of treatment resulted in an increase in days abstinent both concurrently and at a 6-month follow-up. Yet, despite numerous studies showing recovery-related benefits, there are persistent anecdotal concerns about the safety of these predominantly adult gatherings. If clinicians, parents, or adolescents themselves believe these community groups to be unsafe, therapists and parents may be less likely to refer or encourage participation and youth will be less likely to attend.
To support or challenge these concerns this study asked 127 adolescent patients about their 12-step attendance, perceptions of safety at meetings, and whether they had ever felt intimidated, threatened, or sexually harassed at a meeting. Participants were adolescents in treatment at a private outpatient facility in the Northeastern United States who enrolled in a 1-year follow-up study of outpatient treatment effectiveness. They were asked to report reasons for not attending 12-step meetings or for discontinuing attendance, and reasons for liking or disliking meetings. These questions were evaluated to see if any reasons were related to safety concerns or negative experiences. The parents of the teens were asked about their perceptions of adolescents’ safety at AA/NA meetings and whether they had ever attended 12-step meetings. The clinic staff was queried about their own perceptions of adolescents’ safety.
The percent of outpatient youth who attended any 12-step meetings by the end of the 12 month follow-up was 57.5%. Between a quarter and a third reported attending either AA or NA between one and three meetings per week. Youth perceptions of safety were uniformly high among participants although there was a trend for NA to be perceived as less safe as compared with AA. There was no relation between age and perceived safety. Participants with no 12-step attendance gave no reasons related to safety. Furthermore, from several hundred reported reasons for not attending or discontinuing community 12-step meeting attendance, none were related to safety concerns. Parents and clinical staff, in general, also perceived adolescents’ attendance at AA and NA meetings to be safe and staff did not mention safety as a barrier to AA or NA attendance
The researchers conclude, “Our study suggests that youth should not be discouraged from attending AA or NA groups due to potential safety concerns. Rather, similar to adult patients, clinicians should continue to monitor adolescents’ 12-step experiences and assess the specific nature of any reported concerns to address them appropriately and with maximum therapeutic benefit”.
(Kelly, JF, Dow, SJ, Yeterian, JD, Meyers, M: How safe are adolescents at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings? A prospective investigation with outpatient youth. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 40:419-425, 2011.)