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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Ethical considerations for psychotherapists participating in Alcoholics Anonymous

Kohen, Casey B.,Conlin, William E.
Practice Innovations, Vol 7(1), Mar 2022, 40-52.


Because the demands of professional psychology can be taxing, psychotherapists are not immune to the development of mental health and substance use disorders. One estimate indicates that roughly 30% to 40% of psychologists know of a colleague with a current substance abuse problem (Good et al., 1995). Twelve-step mutual self-help groups, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), are the most widely used form of treatment for addiction in the United States. AA has empirically demonstrated effectiveness at fostering long-term treatment success and is widely accessible throughout the world. However, psychotherapist participation in AA raises a number of ethical concerns, particularly regarding the potential for extratherapy contact with clients and the development of multiple relationships. This article attempts to review the precarious ethical and practical situations that psychotherapists, either in long-term recovery or newly sober, may find themselves in during AA involvement. Moreover, this article provides suggestions for psychotherapists in AA regarding how to best adhere to both the principles of AA (i.e., the 12 steps and 12 traditions) and the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct

Here is an excerpt:

Recent literature regarding the use of AA or other mutual self-help groups by psychotherapists is scant, but earlier studies suggest its effectiveness. A 1986 survey of 108 members of Psychologists Helping Psychologists (a seemingly defunct support group exclusively for substance dependent doctoral-level psychologists and students) shows that of the 94% of respondents maintaining abstinence, 86% attended AA (Thoreson et al., 1986). A separate study of 70 psychologists in recovery who were members of AA revealed the majority attained sobriety outside of formal treatment or intervention programs (Skorina et al., 1990). 

Because AA appears to be a vital resource for psychotherapists struggling with substance misuse, it is important to consider how to address ethical dilemmas that one might encounter while participating in AA.


Psychotherapists participating in AA may, at times, find that their professional responsibility of adhering to the APA Code of Ethics hinders some aspects of their categorical involvement in AA as defined by AA’s 12 steps and 12 traditions. The psychotherapist in AA may need to adjust their personal AA “program” in comparison with the typical AA member in a manner that attempts to meet the requirements of the profession yet still provides them with enough support to maintain their professional competence. This article discusses reasonable compromises, specifically tailored to the length of the psychotherapist’s sobriety, that minimize the potential for client harm. Ultimately, if the psychotherapist is unable to find an appropriate middle-ground, where the personal needs of recovery can be met without damaging client welfare and respecting the client’s rights, the psychotherapist should refer the client elsewhere. With these recommendations, psychotherapists should feel more comfortable participating in AA (or other mutual self-help groups) while also adhering to the ethical principles of our profession.