Helping Others Live Sober: New Evidence Indicates “Helping Helps the Helper” Stay Sober
Byron R. Johnson1, Maria E. Pagano2, Matthew T. Lee3, Stephen G. Post4
December 1, 2015

1Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA
2Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA
3University of Akron, OH, USA
4Stony Brook University, NY, USA
Byron R. Johnson, Program on Prosocial Behavior/Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, Waco, TX 254-710-7555, USA. Email: [email protected]


In the twenty-first century, adolescent addiction is a major growing public health concern. Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use by adolescents has been shown to inhibit brain development and academic success, as well as increase the risk of injuries, violence, teenage pregnancy, and infectious disease. Adolescent AOD use has also been tied to increased levels of criminal activity, higher health care costs, and loss of productivity. The cost to society is as much as $500 billion annually for excessive adult and youth drinking.

Because addiction is often a socially isolating disease, youth addiction recovery planning will often include new forms of social support programs and socially-inclusive recovery strategies such as structured, organized volunteer work. A new study by Drs. Byron R. Johnson, Maria E. Pagano, Matthew T. Lee, and Stephen G. Post has examined the relationship between social isolation, giving and receiving social support in Alcoholics Anonymous during treatment, and post-treatment outcomes among juveniles. Adolescents aged 14 to 18 years were assessed during admission to treatment programs, at treatment program discharge, 6 months, and 12 months following treatment. Their research indicates that individuals with social alienation and a lack of participation were significantly more likely to relapse, be incarcerated, or commit a violent crime in 12 months post-treatment. At the same time, adolescents who positively gave help and social support to others in Alcoholics Anonymous during their treatment program experienced significantly reduced risk of relapse, incarceration, or committing a violent crime following treatment. Individuals who received social help during treatment but did not reciprocate the experience to others were not found to have any significant reduction in their risk of relapse, incarceration, or their likelihood to commit a violent crime.

The implications behind this research demonstrate the concept of “helping helps the helper.” Historically, it has been found that an adolescent’s level of social involvement or isolation can have major effects on their behavior and overall prospect on life. New research has shown that the primary cause of drug addiction is social isolation, pain, and distress experienced by users. At the same time, research has indicated that while addiction has led to social isolation, social isolation itself can have neurological effects that increase the likelihood of AOD addiction. Although it seems obvious now, getting addicts reconnected is an important goal that remained overlooked all too often in the past.

This article is based on the paper, ‘Alone on the Inside The Impact of Social Isolation and Helping Others on AOD Use and Criminal Activity’, in Youth & Society. (