12 Steps on a Rocky Path

Alcoholics Anonymous helps incarcerated women, bolsters spiritual beliefs

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) New studies from Brown University and Harvard Medical School respectively look at the effects of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) on incarcerated women and at the program's focus on spirituality.

Although the effects of Alcoholics Anonymous have been intensely studied, little information is available as to the 12-step alcohol-recovery program's effect on women in prison. That lack of data prompted Brown University's Yael Chatav Schonbrun, a researcher in Butler Hospital, to launch a research initiative aimed at analyzing the program's effect on this understudied population, who are at high risk for mental health disorders, risky sexual behavior and physical health problems.

"It is clear that AA is a widely available and familiar resource for underserved populations, and so it was logical to examine predictors of AA attendance, and how useful it would be for incarcerated women," Schonbrun said.

Researchers recruited 223 women who had averaged drinking around 12 drinks per day from the women's facility at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections Adult Correctional Institute. The researchers ran two sessions – one during incarceration and one after release – along with three follow-ups up to six months later to determine alcohol and treatment use.

Researchers applied a timeline method to assess alcohol use of the participants in the previous 90 days and determine the severity of their involvement with alcohol, exposure to other drugs and participation in AA. They found that if the women attended AA at least once a week, there was a significant decrease in the levels of alcohol-related consequences and an overall decrease in the total days spent drinking.

"Given that AA is so widely available, and is a familiar resource among incarcerated women, finding a method to increase utilization of AA might have great utility for improving alcohol and alcohol-related outcomes for incarcerated women," said Schonbrun.

Part of the success evident in that study may be attributed to AA's emphasis on spirituality and "higher powers." A new study from Harvard Medical School suggests attending AA meetings may increase spirituality and help decrease the frequency and intensity of alcohol use.

The study determined that as individuals increased their AA-meeting attendance, their spiritual beliefs grew as well.

"I've heard it said that AA is too spiritual, and I've also heard it said that AA is not spiritual enough for some people," said John F. Kelly, lead author of the study, Associate Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Associate Director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Although this is not the only way that AA helps individuals recover, I think these findings support the notion that AA works in part by enhancing spiritual practices."

Researchers looked at 1,500 adults throughout their recovery process, gathering data at regular intervals for up to 15 months. Sects of data included: AA-meeting attendance, individual spirituality/religiosity practices and overall alcohol-use outcomes.

"Many people will be surprised that alcoholic patients with little or no interest in spirituality attended AA and seemed to change even more than did those who had a pre-existing, strong sense of spirituality," said Keith Humphreys, a career research scientist with the Veterans Health Administration and professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. "AA is thus much more broad in its appeal than is commonly recognized."

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 16, 2010
Last Updated:
December 16, 2010