NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Self-Help Programs Gain Recognition

August 12, 2003

Psychologists want to know more about how to help those who help themselves. Many thousands of self-help groups exist worldwide, but little is known about how they work conceptually, says Keith Humphreys of Stanford University.

Among the different types of such groups, scientists know the most about the ones focused on addiction, followed by those dealing with mental illness, Humphreys said.

Many people think self-help groups begin and end with Alcoholics Anonymous. And it is the biggest self-help group on earth, Humphries explains:

  • Despite its worldwide influence, AA was not widely appreciated among mental health professionals.
  • That changed in the last decade, when a National Institutes of Health study found that a grass-roots 12-step program like AA held its ground compared with two professionally run treatment programs.
  • Many experts thought the 12-step program would be, in essence, a no-treatment control for the experiment, so they were shocked that the program was as successful as the two professional ones.
  • And in fact it was superior on certain measures, like abstinence.

Humphreys found that 12-step programs, compared with professional cognitive behavioral therapy (which focuses on thought processes to help change behavior), can greatly reduce other health care costs -- on average, by almost $4,800 per patient in one study. In essence, people in the 12-step programs started turning to group members for some of the support that they had been visiting doctors for.

Source: Karen Patterson, "Self-help groups' success assessed: Psychologists call for long-term studies of unique programs," Dallas Morning News, August 11, 2003.


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