At its most simple level,
mutual aid can be described as
people with similar experiences helping each other to
manage or overcome issues.
What it infers is a system
where people come together with their peers to build a
network of support.
In Keith Humphreys’ book Circles of Recovery, he
identifies some shared characteristics of mutual aid
groups, such as members sharing some problem or
status that results in suffering/distress, members both
offer and receive support as a part of the group, groups
are organised and facilitated by members, experiential
knowledge is the basis of expertise and no fees are
charged, except for individual member voluntary
There are many models of mutual aid, with varying
approaches and set ups for different cohorts of people.
The most widespread are the ’12-step’ fellowships
(Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous,
Cocaine Anonymous, Families Anonymous, Marijuana
Anonymous etc), but there are also SMART Recovery
Groups, Methadone Anonymous (US) and LifeRing
Recovery (US). Al-anon and Alateen help families
of alcoholics. These supportive networks span the
country, at times and in places where a large number of
people can access support.
Some people’s journey to recovery takes them straight
to mutual aid; for others, their journey goes via the
‘formal’ structured treatment system or doctors,
nurses and counsellors.
Either way, mutual aid groups
provide an immense opportunity to offer the kind of
supportive environment needed to help individuals
recover and to support them in the long term – as well
as giving them the opportunity to support others.
It is perhaps this changed, supportive social
environment – that many who have faced problems with
addiction may not have experienced before – which has
the greatest potential to support sustained life changes
for individuals, and the families and communities in
which they live.
Mark Gillyon, head of delivery at the NTA, talks
to Jules T, public information representative from
How do you describe the aim of Narcotics Anonymous?
Our primary purpose is to carry to every using addict the message
that recovery is possible. We know from the experience of many
thousands all over the world that sustained, long-term recovery
can be achieved through our programme, which is simply based
on complete abstinence and the therapeutic value of one addict
How did it all start?
In the USA in 1953, when drug addicts who had been attending
meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous decided to form their own
fellowship. Following that first NA meeting in Los Angeles, the
society grew slowly, spreading to other major north American
cities and to Australia by the early 1970s. The first NA meeting in
the UK took place in London in 1980.
In 1983, when NA published its self-titled Basic Text, the growth
of the organisation rocketed. New groups sprang up in Brazil,
Colombia, Germany, India, the Irish Republic, Japan, New Zealand,
and the UK. By the end of the year 1,200 groups had been
established in 11 countries. Growth from then on was rapid.
How big is NA, and how accessible?
There are currently more than 700 weekly meetings across the
UK, from Penzance to Wick. Around 250 take place in London. In
addition, more than 30 meetings are held each week in prisons
and a further 30-40 in treatment and detoxification centres.
We are a community-based society of people for whom drugs
had become a major problem. We offer a new social circle,
support, friendship, encouragement and a place to share. For
those leaving treatment or prison, we are a soft landing.
There is no fee, though each meeting takes a collection to cover
the rent for its venue, the cost of tea and coffee, and buying some
literature from our service office.
Who can attend NA?
NA is open to anyone who has a desire to stop using, regardless
of age, race, sexual identity, religion or lack of religion. It is not a
requirement to be abstinent (drug-free) to attend our meetings.
There are no fees or dues, no pledges or promises to make. We
do not assess people’s desire, or whether they have a problem
at all: that is for each individual to decide for his or herself. If
someone says they have a problem, and that they want help,
we offer it.
Despite our name, we are not concerned with the
drug used: we accept anyone who feels they have a problem,
regardless of the substance – and just to be clear, we do
absolutely include alcohol as a drug.
How does it work?
Our groups meet regularly to help each other stay clean. At
meetings in church and community halls across the country,
members share their experiences, strength and hope with one
another. Newcomers are amazed to meet for the first time people
who have got, and stayed, clean; old timers are reminded by the
raw sharing of those in early days of their own distant pain, and
of how much they have to be grateful for now.
Everyone helps each other – because as we say in our readings
‘we keep what we have only by giving it away’. In other words,
helping others is not a by-product of recovery: it is the engine that
makes recovery possible.
Ours is a programme of complete abstinence from all mind- and
mood-altering drugs. It is centred on the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions
of NA. When adapting AA’s First Step, the word ‘addiction’ was
substituted for ‘alcohol’, thus removing drug-specific language and
reflecting our belief in the disease concept of addiction.
The 12 Steps are simply written, and act as a daily guide in the
journey to becoming acceptable, productive and responsible
members of society. The process of ‘working the Steps’ involves
admitting we have a problem, asking for help, carrying out
a personal moral inventory, identifying our weaknesses (and
strengths), making amends to those we have harmed, and then
helping others to achieve their own recovery.
We work through
the 12 Steps with a sponsor – a kind of mentor we choose
because we feel some sort of identification or affinity, or because
we admire their recovery. Nobody is assigned a sponsor, and
nobody is obliged to do what a sponsor suggests. In fact we
have no rules at all, only suggestions. We know from our own
experience that addicts react negatively to being given rules!
Are there religious elements to the fellowship?
NA is not a religion or a cult. We have many members from every
major faith, and plenty of atheists too. Our programme does
have a spiritual dimension, because the disease of addiction has
a spiritual dimension: active addicts are locked in self-obsessed
fear, and often believe they are the centre of the universe, which
makes them very selfish.
In recovery, we suggest accepting that
there is a higher power than ourselves – in other words, that the
world does not revolve around us. Our members choose their own
higher power. For some it’s their NA group, humanity, or nature;
for others it’s the god of their faith. We use the word God as a
shorthand for all of these higher powers in some of our literature,
always with the rider ‘a God of our understanding’. We never
instruct members what that understanding should be.
Are there specific meetings for specific groups, for
Yes, in the UK there are men’s and women’s meetings, as well as
meetings for gay and lesbian members, language-based meetings
and also some other special-interest meetings, for example for
people with an illness to manage in recovery.
What are the benefits for those who attend?
From the annual survey carried out at our World Convention
in 2007, NA members have a mean average of 9.1 years
clean. By comparison, the 2003 membership survey, showed a
mean average of 7.4 years clean.
The 2007 survey also asked members to assess areas of their lives that have improved with NA attendance. The two areas that received overwhelming
improvement were family relationships, where 90% of our
members stated enrichment, and social connectedness,
mentioned by 83% of the respondents. Active addiction is
marked by increased isolation and destruction of relationships:
these results show that recovery in NA has helped people to repair
the damage in their lives from drug addiction.
Our 2008 UK membership survey shows that 98% of
respondents claimed improvement in their quality of life since
coming to NA; 72% improvement in employment status; 63% in
educational qualifications; and 91% in relationships.
Stats aside, most people I know would say the biggest benefits
are peace of mind (especially freedom from the obsession to use),
a sense of belonging somewhere, and the awakening of an ability
to love and to be loved.
What about those who are still in treatment receiving
prescribed medication, for example? Can they engage
You don’t have to be clean (by which we mean drug-free) to
attend our meetings, and we are clear that prescribed medication,
taken as prescribed by a physician, does not compromise a
person’s recovery. We hold meetings in treatment facilities for
people who can’t get out to attend our public meetings.
Can you support parents and families of addicts?
We have open meetings which welcome non-addicts to attend
as observers and see what goes on in our meetings. however,
we do not set out to support non-addicts: our programme is all
about one addict helping another to recover.
There are other organisations, including 12-step fellowships such as Families
Anonymous, and Al-anon and Alateen, which offer specific
support for family members. While we don’t endorse or promote
any outside organisations, our helpline is happy to refer family
members on to them.
What about clients in prison? Can they access prisonbased groups, in most prisons in England?
We hold meetings in almost every prison in the UK. A regular
‘secretary’ will arrange for an NA member to attend each week to
share his or her experience, strength and hope with all those who
attend the meeting. This is not easy for us to maintain, especially
with the locally variable and often complex or even prohibitive
By definition, many of our members are
former clients of these facilities, which makes their sharing even
more powerful, but often precludes them from being allowed in.
How can drug treatment workers improve their
understanding about NA, and offer the opportunity of
going to NA to anyone who might want it?
We strongly recommend attending one of our open meetings as
an observer. I’ve taken many people, and I have never had anyone
be less than touched, moved and inspired by the experience. Just
check the website and look for the word ‘open’ under a meeting’s
EFFECTIvE TREATmENT ChANGING LIvES
NTA 2010listing. A local public information volunteer can often be found
to accompany people, which can make it that bit easier, and you
don’t have to give your reason for attending. Call our service
office on 020 7251 4007 and ask for PI. They’ll take a message
and someone from PI will call back to make arrangements.
How can people find their nearest meeting?
Our website is www.ukna.org. It has the most up-to-date meeting
list available. We also print a booklet called ‘Where to Find’, which
is available at most meetings and is free to those in early recovery.
Our helpline aims to be available 24/7, and is on 0300 999 12 12.
It might be challenging for someone to go to their first
meeting. Can they go with a worker, family member or
friend? Or meet an existing NA member beforehand?
We all remember the experience of walking into our first meeting.
Usually people are kind: we say in our readings before every
meeting that the newcomer is the most important person in any
meeting. We also have a pamphlet entitled ‘What to Expect at
Your First NA meeting’, available from our service office or website.
Open meetings welcome anyone, so family and friends are
welcome to come along to those, and if people call the helpline
and ask to be met we will do our best to get in touch with a local
member who will meet the newcomer before the meeting and
talk them through everything.
Where can people get further information?
The website www.ukna.org, or the global website www.na.org,
the helpline on 0300 999 12 12
for addicts seeking a chat or a
meeting, the service office on 020 7251 4007 for enquiries about
our literature or to contact service volunteers in public information.
If we could do three things to make treatment more
effective, what would they be?
To maintain our focus, we do not have any opinion about outside
issues, by which we mean anything outside of NA itself, so we
can’t give advice or opinions on treatment.
Of course, we do believe that by offering clients access to NA,
especially as they move towards the end of their treatment, the
long-term success rate will improve. That access can take the
form of passing on our literature, or directing people towards our
For our part, we are committed to making sure that every
professional in the treatment community has a clear and accurate
picture of what NA is, and what it isn’t.
We’ll send public
information volunteers in to do presentations to anyone who’d
like to know more, or ask questions about anything.
Just call our
service office on 020 7251 4007 and ask for a PI presentation.
We don’t claim to be the only effective solution for addiction,
but we know from our experience over almost 60 years and with
hundreds of thousands of recovering addicts that our programme
works for anyone who’s willing to work it.
We are here to
cooperate with the UK’s treatment community, in order to get
closer to our goal that no addict need die without knowing that
recovery is possible in NA.
020 7403 0888
020 7407 0215
0845 769 7555
0800 612 0225
0845 1200 660
LifeRing Recovery (US)
Methadone Anonymous (US)
0300 999 12 12
0845 603 9830