Peer-Led Addiction Recovery Support Groups: An Embarrassment of Riches

Peer-Led Addiction Recovery Support Groups: An Embarrassment of Riches
By Nina J. Henry, LCPC, CADC, JCFS Addiction Specialist & Mental Health Educator

Did you know there was something called National Recovery Month? In 1989, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) established this as a national observance to promote and support new evidence-based substance use treatment and recovery practices. Since National Recovery Month takes place in September, we want to take this opportunity to reflect on its importance, focusing primarily on the way peer-led support groups have helped individuals and families start and sustain recovery through these exceptionally challenging times.

As an Addiction Specialist, I became very worried as the Covid pandemic lock-down began. How would people in recovery or trying to recover from substance use disorders obtain support for their sobriety? Substance use treatment and recovery support groups are fundamentally about interpersonal connection. Robbed of in-person human interaction, how would all these people fare?

As Amy R. Krentzman wrote for the National Institutes of Health, “Indeed, for many, the pandemic has caused psychological, emotional, social, and economic stress resulting in negative emotional states, most notably, social isolation and loneliness.”

In his book, Slaying the Dragon, William White asserts that mutual-aid groups have “emerged as surrogate family structures and as voluntary spiritual communities.” He states that these groups often form around times of economic hardship. He further points out that society’s ebbs and flows have, over time, caused a plethora of support groups to surface. It would follow that the Covid pandemic would become a new example of such a time. The difference here was not so much that new groups formed, but that many of them migrated to an online format.

Many of us have heard of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program, an early example of peer recovery support groups. The addiction services team at JCFS Chicago fields many community calls. Often, when callers are Jewish and are seeking recovery support, they mention being uncomfortable with a perceived Christian overtone at 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. We at JCFS Chicago Addiction Services have had many fruitful discussions about how 12 Step recovery and Judaism easily complement each other. In addition, we can offer alternatives. There are so many alternatives!

For example, research and lived experience has demonstrated that some women find recovery most readily through peer support groups created with women’s social and psychological histories in mind. One such group is Women for Sobriety, which utilizes a series of Acceptance Statements focused on empowering women to take responsibility for their lives, seeing where they can make positive choices for themselves, and actively creating a meaningful future.

Other peer support groups emphasize secular, scientifically validated strategies, with SMART Recovery being perhaps the most widely recognized of these. SMART Recovery differs from many mutual-aid groups in that there is a trained facilitator for each group, using principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and other secular evidence-based practices when guiding participants in their recovery journey. Another group is known as LifeRing, which describes itself as a “free, abstinence-based, secular, and self-empowered substance use disorder recovery pathway.”

All the groups previously mentioned are open to anyone seeking or maintaining addiction recovery. However, one recovery support fellowship that specifically serves Jewish people in recovery is “JACS”: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent People and Significant Others. One distinguishing feature of JACS is that Jewish individuals from all recovery backgrounds and programs are welcome. Each group determines its own meeting format, but the topics typically center around the Jewish recovery experience. Chicago has had JACS groups on and off over many years. The current Chicago-based JACS group meets on Zoom and is therefore able to welcome individuals from around the country. The ability to offer support and receive support from others near and far has been one clear benefit of recent COVID restrictions and appears likely to continue.

For more information on these groups and other addiction recovery resources, including recovery meetings taking place in (or if hybrid/online, affiliated with) Jewish organizations, please contact Nina Henry at JCFS Chicago addiction services or 847.745.5457.