Mutual aid and self-help programmes

Man considers mutual aid for heroin recovery

Recovery can be learned and other recovering- and ex-drug users can help each other overcome their dependence through face-to-face or online support groups.

One-to-one peer support is often available from local support groups for those not ready for group activity.

People looking for ongoing support from a network of people with similar experiences.


  • Meet a new group of people who accept you and understand your problems and the issues you are dealing with.
  • Control – you decide if and when you attend.
  • Unambiguous emphasis on abstinence.
  • Can help develop healthy relationships and feelings of social inclusion and community.
  • Can provide a feeling of purpose and meaning.
  • The spiritual nature of some types of meetings can be comforting and some participants feel it gives them a focus for beating their dependence.


  • Effectiveness relies upon frequent attendance at meetings, which might not be possible for you.
  • Focus on abstinent recovery may be incompatible with medication-assisted treatments.
  • The approach is based on groupwork – sharing your experiences openly with other people. This can be liberating and empowering, but it can also be difficult for some people.
  • Those who are not religious may find the spiritual nature of some of the meetings (12 steps) off-putting.

Access to mutual aid groups is usually by simply attending a meeting, though some networks will allow you to meet with an individual mentor or sponsor prior to attending a meeting. You will be able to find details of local mutual aid groups through your local drugs service or via the yellow pages. The NA website or SMART recovery website are also useful resources for finding local groups.

There are two main options for what type of group you can attend. If you are a spiritual person and/or committed to living completely free of drugs including opioid medication and alcohol, then a 12-step group such as Narcotics Anonymous may be for you.

The 12 steps are a set of rules derived from Alcoholics Anonymous’ own 12-step programme that promotes complete abstinence from drugs, including alcohol, but not cigarettes. A strong spiritual element exists within 12-step programmes; it is necessary to put your faith in a ‘higher power’ and to admit that you are powerless over your addiction. The 12-steps are considered an ongoing process and attendance can continue indefinitely.

An alternative to the 12-steps-based programmes are skills-based programmes such as SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) recovery. The focus of skills-based programmes is on self-responsibility and empowerment. A series of science-based tools are taught that allow you to rationally assess your cravings and behaviour with the aim of helping you to change them yourself. If you are looking for a programme that allows you to engage with medication-assisted treatment at the same time and to stop using drugs at your own pace, skills-based programmes such as SMART recovery or Rational Recovery may be suitable.

Long-term benefits
Attendance at mutual aid meetings can boost abstinence for those who are able to keep going, although research indicates that it is generally only effective if you attend at least once per week. Studies suggest that some do find this level of ongoing attendance difficult to sustain, but for those able to stick with it, the results can be really positive.