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12 Step Recovery and Lessons For Coronavirus

12 Step Recovery and Lessons For Coronavirus

Opinion by EHN Guest Writer

Written by Jeff Vircoe, journalist.

Nowhere in 12 Step programs does it say, “stay alone with your disease,” nor does it say “be distant from others.”

No doctor would suggest isolating in recovery. No physician, psychiatrist, no treatment centre. In fact, the idea of isolation runs contrary to pretty much every suggested modality of treatment for addiction.

Welcome to the reality of Spring 2020.

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is upon the globe. Countries and economies are buckling under the stress. Families are huddled together, making the best of it. Jobs have been shut down. The consequences of coronavirus can easily be overwhelming. “Stay home!” say the authorities. People are frightened, and the timeline for when things will be back to normal is fuzzy at best.

But one of the leaders in the field of addiction treatment is setting a new standard for all to see.

EHN Canada, with over 500 employees and the nation’s largest network of residential and outpatient addiction treatment programs, has facilities with clinical and medical teams across the country. Deemed an essential service, EHN Canada facilities are adapting well to providing care and support under the new conditions of the coronavirus pandemic.

EHN Canada conducts rigorous pre-admission screening of new patients. Our facilities have been limiting the number of arrivals each day and doubling down on hygiene and cleanliness of staff, patients, and the physical facilities themselves. Cara Vaccarino, COO of EHN Canada, observes that EHN Canada clinicians at all levels are adapting effectively to the threats posed by coronavirus. “In my mind, every time we have to make a decision, I think of our patients, our staff, and our society,” she says, “it’s always those three planes of responsibility.”

Like the rest of the world, EHN’s thousands of staff, alumni, and current patients, are learning how to implement social distancing and self-isolation.

One of the key elements that 12 Steppers have known all along is the importance of connecting with others who “get” you. Talking to one another about challenges remains a vital component of healing for individuals in recovery. Terms like “isolation” and “distancing” can be concerning. Churches, schools, and community halls, the most commonly used locations for meetings for the estimated nearly 100,000 Canadians trying to maintain recovery through mutual aid societies like Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), have shut down.

“A very unfortunate situation has evolved,” says Vaccarino, “these public health measures that are necessary—physical distancing and self-isolation—are the very things addiction thrives on.”

It may be important for everyone to remember that, in spite of the words “isolation” and “distancing,” whether you are in recovery or not, the truth is that socially you are not alone. The entire global community is adjusting.

Within five days of the uptick in coronavirus COVID-19 cases in Canada, EHN had adapted to the new crisis, ramping up its digital platforms and allowing alumni to hold virtual aftercare meetings across the network.

Even Cake Nights, celebrations of recovery milestones, were held online in Nanaimo and Toronto to continue showing others how treatment and stable recovery are realistic possibilities, even in the midst of the opioid and coronavirus crises.

Recovery support systems remain in place, though it might take a little time to get used to the new formats. Twelve Step members are using technology to maintain the connection of talking to each other and sharing both the successes and the challenges that they face in recovery. FaceTime. Zoom. Skype. WhatsApp. Websites such as and will point you to online meetings.

Wagon, EHN Canada’s online aftercare app,, has been up and running for a few years. It offers helpful tips and important recovery reminders for getting through the day.

Vaccarino, who is in daily contact with federal, provincial, and local authorities, understands and is highly supportive of the measures advised by the government. But, as a matter of semantics, she is no fan of the term “social distancing.” “It’s just poor terminology,” she says, “I think ‘physical distancing’ is better.”

For many people working towards recovery, 12 Step meetings may never have been so important—nor so impressively validated—by the scientific and medical community.

Even as the world ground to a standstill in March, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, CNN and Canada’s National Post joined a host of medical heavyweights like Stanford Medicine and the Harvard Medical School in heralding a new report on the efficacy of AA and its meetings.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the grandfather of the ever-growing 12 Step movement, was singled out for the study by the medical journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Review. The results were flattering for the organization. In an exhaustive search for clinical and public health benefits of various treatments, one study closely reviewed over 35 other studies and concluded that a scientific thumbs up was deserved for AA’s results.

“When compared to other well-established, commonly-delivered treatments for alcohol use disorder, AA and Twelve Step facilitation generally performs as well on most clinical outcomes,” said Dr. John Kelly, a Harvard Medical School professor and lead author of the study. At the same time, it’s also important to remember that there will always be more complex or severe cases of substance use disorders where individuals will need residential treatment with evidence-based psychotherapy to get better.

This kind of support from the scientific community should give hope to individuals everywhere who are struggling with substance use disorders, and encourage those who are thinking about asking for help.

“The fact that AA is free and so widely available is also good news,” said Dr. Kelly, in a New York Times, March 11, 2020 article. “It’s the closest thing in public health we have to a free lunch.”

It is also a solid pat on the back for addiction treatment providers like EHN Canada, who have always offered 12 Step facilitation to varying degrees in many of their programs.

“Anyone who’s been in the field long enough knows how powerful 12 Step recovery is,” says Vaccarino, “12 Step facilitation can and will help you get sober and get on with your sobriety. But we know it’s just not enough for some people. Our programs are geared towards stabilizing people and getting them on the right track.”

EHN Canada treatment programs incorporate evidence-based psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), and medication assisted treatment (MAT), and supports AA, NA, and other mutual aid societies, including SMART Recovery and other secular approaches.

In the end, Vaccarino suggests that, “the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a historic learning moment for everyone with substance use issues or not. It’s not just about recovery, right? It’s about having a life worth living. It’s about giving back. Being part of your community, of society. It’s times like this that society thrives on the principles embodied in the 12 Step philosophy. Unity. Recovery. Service. Helping others to get along.”

We Can Help You

If you’d like to learn more about the addiction and mental health treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

Online Treatment and Support

If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-800-387-6198 or visit


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