I’ve noticed in online counselor forums that many therapists and counselors are quite reluctant to refer clients to 12 Step fellowships. Their suspicions might be divided into three broad categories.
- A client had a bad experience. A recent example: a counselor complained that her younger female clients were ‘hit on’ by men at meetings. “Many of my clients are trauma victims,” she added, “and the last thing they need to suffer through is uninvited advances from horny young guys.” Another described NA meetings as ‘hunting grounds for sexual predators.’ Her opinion was based on the fact that many of the attendees had criminal records.
- A client got bad advice from someone at a meeting. Professionals have long argued that 12 Step members exceed their role when they express opinions on areas they’re not trained for– like mental illness. “My patient’s sponsor advised him to drop out of therapy,” objected a psychologist. “The sponsor’s a tax accountant, for pete’s sake. What does he know about psychotherapy?” Still other professionals have complained about an anti-medication bias among 12 Steppers.
- It’s really just religion in sheep’s clothing. Religion is always a hot button topic in the U.S., along with taxes. Nobody likes having someone else’s religious beliefs thrust on them. Although the 12 Step fellowships aren’t actually religious in nature, for many, they’re entirely too close for comfort. There are solidly nonspiritual alternatives available, such as SMART and Women for Sobriety, but they’re less common and therapists are often unaware of them.
You can’t say the above complaints are without merit. These things do happen, and when they do, it’s a problem. Still, professionals often allow such sentiments to cross the line from observation to prejudice — a preconceived negative opinion that affects treatment. This isn’t easy for many professionals to acknowledge. They may take pride in maintaining objectivity (it’s actually a value in many ethical codes), and resist any suggestion that they may be biased.
“Personally, I believe AA and NA are toxic to mental health,” one therapist opined in an online discussion. “But I would never express that to a client. The client directs treatment. If he or she wants to attend these groups, I allow it.”
Of course anyone who’s ever been on the other side of therapy knows that this therapist’s feelings would be instantly apparent to the client, through tone and expression, in spite of the professional’s efforts to hide them. You might as well write ‘I don’t want you to go to AA’ in big letters on the wall behind the therapist’s chair. It’s about that obvious.
As I’ve said before, it’s unfortunate that more professionals can’t get past these barriers, because the evidence is that alcoholics and addicts who do get involved in these fellowships, particularly to the point of sponsoring another person, benefit significantly in terms of their own recovery — not just its sustainability, but its quality.