Celebrating 20 Years: What’s Next for SMART Recovery?

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SMART Recovery Annual Conference Recap

SMART Recovery celebrated its 20th anniversary in Washington, D.C., September 26 through 28, at the National Geographic headquarters. Although substantial expansion of SMART Recovery’s size and influence is expected in the coming decades, this annual conference was an opportunity to appraise developments thus far.

The conference was held in D.C. to coincide with the 25th annual Recovery Month. This location also allowed easy access for government officials.

Michael Botticelli, Acting Director (and Director nominee) of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Executive Office of the President, was the opening speaker. ONDCP has increasingly focused in recent years on reducing demand (prevention) and encouraging treatment and recovery support, in addition to its established focus on law enforcement. Botticelli has generated gratitude in SMART Recovery for his efforts to recognize the diversity of recovery. In addition to his own remarks, he brought a message from President Obama to SMART Recovery. The audience, almost all volunteers for SMART Recovery, was enthusiastic and appreciative.

That afternoon a panel discussion on “SMART Recovery and recovery advocacy” included 1) Peter Gaumond, Chief of the Recovery Branch at ONDCP, 2) Tom Coderre, Senior Advisor to the Administrator of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and one of the “stars” of The Anonymous People documentary, and 3) Steve Gumbley, former Chair and former acting CEO of Faces and Voices of Recovery, and former Director of the New England Addiction Technology Transfer Center.

…although participants in SMART are free to think about addiction and recovery in the terms that make most sense to them, most do not use terms typically associated with 12-step groups, such as disease, addict, alcoholic, powerlessness, alcoholism, higher power…-Tom Horvath

The opening question to the panel concerned the differences between the language of recovery in SMART Recovery, and the language of recovery advocacy that one typically hears, such as in The Anonymous People. For instance, although participants in SMART are free to think about addiction and recovery in the terms that make most sense to them, most do not use terms typically associated with 12-step groups, such as disease, addict, alcoholic, powerlessness, alcoholism, higher power, character defects, etc. Would SMART Recovery ever have a place in the recovery movement and in recovery advocacy? The panel encouraged SMART Recovery to keep asserting that it belonged in the movement, and to push for the development of inclusive language.

Another highlight of the conference was a 15 minute video from Bill White, about the place of SMART Recovery in the history of mutual help, and the challenges it will likely face in the future. White began his presentation in 1730, describing Native American mutual help. He has studied many organizations, many of which are no longer with us. He suggested that challenges for SMART include managing the hybrid nature of the organization. SMART is perhaps the only mutual help organization that is explicitly a partnership between peers in recovery and professionals. He also reminded us that continuation of the organization past the involvement of the founders (many of whom were in the room) was a crucial issue for any organization.

SMART is perhaps the only mutual help organization that is explicitly a partnership between peers in recovery and professionals.-Tom Horvath

These three presentations suggest the growing influence of SMART Recovery. The conference also included highly appreciated presentations by several SMART volunteers on various aspects of SMART, and international updates from representatives from Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, Ireland and the UK. The conference was live-streamed. Video of the event will be available via SMARTRecovery.org in the near future.

The History of SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery was originally known as the Rational Recovery Self-help Network, and was the non-profit affiliated for years with Rational Recovery (RR). When that affiliation ended in 1994 individual groups chose which organization to belong to. In 2000 RR stopped offering mutual help groups altogether. In 1995 SMART had about 90 meetings. A detailed chronology of SMART Recovery, and other historical information, was compiled by Bill White.

Several themes have been prominent in SMART’s history. SMART has survived several stressful periods (including the ending of the affiliation with RR, several episodes of low cash reserves, internal disagreement about the hybrid model, uncertainty about how the SMART online community should operate, and uncertainty about how SMART should expand and operate in other countries). In each case there was strong underlying commitment to the mission of the organization, which is to provide science-based, self-empowering mutual help.

SMART has an ongoing relationship with scientific researchers, resulting in increasing amounts of published evidence about SMART. Training facilitators has been done with increasing rigor. Outside organizations have supported SMART with recognition and funding. Online activities have been fully incorporated into SMART as the online world has emerged. Individuals and organizations around the world have been eager to join SMART.

The Current Status of SMART Recovery

SMART operates over 1,300 meetings worldwide, in 13 countries. The majority of SMART meetings occur outside the U.S. (primarily at present in the U.K. and Australia). The SMART Handbook is sold in seven languages in addition to English (German, Spanish, Danish, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Farsi and Vietnamese), and additional translations are in process. The “English” Handbook includes versions for the U.K., Australia, and the U.S.

In addition to face-to-face and online meetings open to the public, there are closed meetings in correctional facilities (such as prisons) and in treatment centers. An increasing number of professionals are also conducting SMART Recovery oriented groups, which parallel the 12-step oriented groups now widely available. The Distance Training, for training new meeting facilitators, has over 100 participants each month, many of whom are professionals interested in learning more about SMART Recovery for inclusion in their own work.

The SMART Recovery international website hosts a thriving online community. Several national and many local websites also exist. On the main website there are over two dozen online meetings each week. The Message Board has hundreds of comments each month. Over one million individuals have visited the site thus far in 2014. The 24/7 chat function is never idle.

The SMART approach is the intersection of what is science-based, what is self-empowering, and what works in a mutual help group.-Tom Horvath

The SMART approach to recovery is summarized in its slogan (“Discover the Power of Choice!”), the 4-Point Program (1: Building and Maintaining Motivation, 2: Coping with Urges, 3: Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors, and 4: Living a Balanced Life), and the SMART Tools. The Tools undergo the most frequent revision. They include various ideas and techniques drawn from CBT, MI and group work. The SMART approach is the intersection of what is science-based, what is self-empowering, and what works in a mutual help group.

The Future of SMART Recovery

The themes already prominent in SMART’s history, as noted above, appear likely to continue. Additionally, as there is greater awareness of the court decision ruling that the government may not require someone to attend a 12-step meeting, SMART Recovery will be increasingly in demand in the judicial system. SMART Recovery is exploring the development of a more structured meeting format, which could simplify the facilitator training process and allow for more rapid increase in the number of meetings. SMART’s integration into treatment facilities also appears likely to increase. Because SMART is committed to evolving its approach as the science of addiction and recovery evolves, we can expect further changes in that approach.

Since its founding SMART has increased its emphasis on motivational aspects of recovery, and has been exploring the inclusion of mindfulness techniques. As SMART grows it will also likely have a larger social component, which is relatively absent now. Although SMART participants tend to be relatively affluent and educated, SMART Recovery has worked well in a range of correctional facilities, suggesting that the slow dissemination of SMART into a wider range of communities is not a problem inherent in the SMART approach.

As the number of individuals who believe that “AA is the only way” continues to diminish, the actual number of SMART meetings will be less important than having access to them, and being informed they exist.-Tom Horvath

SMART aims to become available enough that individuals seeking a mutual help experience can have SMART as an option. However, it appears likely that SMART will continue to be smaller than the combined 12-step fellowship, because SMART encourages attendance for as long as it is needed, but probably not a lifetime. As the number of individuals who believe that “AA is the only way” continues to diminish, the actual number of SMART meetings will be less important than having access to them, and being informed they exist. At SMART’s present rate of growth, comparable access in the U.S. appears to be about a decade away.




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