Effectiveness of the 12-Step Program Among Millennials

Millennial in a field

For 76 years now, 12 Step Programs have monopolized the field of addiction recovery. Based on their principle of anonymity, an accurate figure of participation is unknown, but estimates suggest that around five million people attend these meetings in any given year.

Recent times have, however, seen several critics question the validity of the twelve steps, especially when it comes to the millennials.

The number of millennials constituting membership is significantly small. Only two percent of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) members are under age twenty, and thirteen percent are under age thirty.

“Young people are a minority in these groups, so they may find it more difficult initially to identify with members who are older and have different challenges, such as children, elderly parents and job loss,” stated Dr. John Kelly, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Addiction Recovery Management Service at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Despite the statistics, Dr. Kelly advocates that teens and young adults can benefit greatly from attending meetings for groups such as AA and NA.

The Millennials and Substance Abuse

“The Millennial generation,” also known as “Generation Y,” encompasses an expansive and highly influential demographic in America: 40 percent of all adults over the age of 21 (roughly two out of five Americans) belong to this group, which includes anyone who reached adulthood around the year 2000.

Millennials face a unique set of challenges unlike other generations. They were raised in a time of instability where there was war, as well as experienced a technological takeover of everyday life and rapid information.

It is important to understand that experience of addiction varies too for this generation largely due to an increased and early exposure to drugs and alcohol, extreme academic pressure, newly discovered issues with body image and mental health issues of greater magnitude.

Key Substance Abuse Trends

Alcohol has almost always been the most commonly used substance. According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 80 percent of Millennials reported consuming alcohol.

Following closely is marijuana that is the second most abused substance. In 2016, 38.3 percent of high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws reported past-year marijuana use compared to 33.3 percent in non medical marijuana states.

Woman struggling with alcoholismThe use of illicit stimulants and sedatives has steadily declined with almost no fluctuations. The Millennial’s drug of choice has, however, been prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Adderall, Valium, etc .

Prescription painkiller abuse is more common among Millennials than any other previous generation.

Over 12 percent of Millennials aged 19–20 reported recent painkiller abuse. As prescription opioid abuse and overdose continues, this generation could be at greater risk of addiction than ever.

The Monopoly of the 12 Steps

Twelve-step groups are a form of mutual-help platforms with no professional involvement based on the foundation that individuals with a common identifiably, undesirable behavior can work together towards the elimination of that behavior.

AA, the first and largest twelve-step organization, was initiated by a group of individuals dependent on alcohol, under the supervision of its founder, Bill Wilson, at a time when little or no assistance was available in this regard. The organization contributed to the establishment of formal substance user treatment in the first part of the 20th century.

In the last two decades, 12-step organizations have become largely integrated with most formal treatment models, thus becoming somewhat homogenized and mainstreamed.

Since its origin, the 12 step program is now applied to over 300 addictions and psychological disorders: drug-use, of course (Narcotics Anonymous), but also smoking, sex and pornography addictions, social anxiety, kleptomania, overeating, compulsive spending, problem-gambling, even “workaholism.”

Millennials and the 12 Steps Program

Dr. Kelly researched 300 young adults, aged 18 to 24, assessing their participation and involvement in 12-step programs following inpatient treatment. High rates of attendance and involvement were observed and a positive relationship emerged with even more days of abstinence.

Even though the effect of attendance faded away eventually, the effect of involvement continued to grow. The study further discovered that maintaining contact with group members outside of meetings or participating verbally during meetings proved to more beneficial for young adults.

“Consistent and active involvement maintains and increases the benefit of participation, resulting in sustained improvement over time,” stated Dr. Kelly. Only committing fully to the program can yield true success.

A second study found that young adolescents who attended meetings with some members belonging to the same age group during the first three months post-treatment had better outcomes than those who attended meetings with just older members. However, the importance of being with the same age group deteriorated over the next nine months.

The study included 127 outpatient teens in substance abuse treatment programs. They were assessed when they entered treatment, and again at intervals of three, six and twelve months.

The researchers found greater meeting attendance was independently associated with significantly better substance use outcomes. Those who were in contact with a sponsor from AA or NA had an even better outcome compared to from just attending meetings.

Some have argued that millennials are in a time of a swiftly changing addiction landscape and the 12 step approach is for “old timers.” Hence, there is a new group called Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous (YPAA) that particularly caters to a younger population and has reported growth on a yearly basis.

Despite the age of an individual with substance use disorder, social support and a sense of purpose are crucial for anyone recovering from addiction. Both these elements form the basis of the 12 step program.

A Congregated Approach

Woman holding the sunAnother simple but effective way to prevent millennial drug abuse is for parents to initiate an open communication with their kids to address the risks of doing drugs.

One study found that teens whose parents warned them about the repercussions of drugs were up to 50 percent less likely to experiment with drugs.

No treatment approach is without its pros and cons. Recent times have shown that a combination of interventions have proven to be more effective, especially for the millennials.

There is no one best path to recovery. One may work for an individual and another might not. Working with a specialized and comprehensive treatment program is essential in creating an individualized and effective plan for addiction recovery.


Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.


[1]: National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends” https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/monitoring-future-survey-high-school-youth-trends
[2]: “Drug Use Across the Generations” http://drugabuse.com/featured/drug-and-alcohol-abuse-across-generations/
[3]: Utley, Tori. “Don’t Dismiss the 12 Steps, Validate All Recovery From Addiction”, https://www.forbes.com/sites/toriutley/2016/03/29/think-12-step-programs-have-lost-their-value-think-again/#769c3ac4375f

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on April 23, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 23, 2017
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.