Around AA, the question is regularly asked, 'are we doing enough for young people in AA?'
One response to this question has been the development of a separate movement of young people in AA.
This article attempts to look at the matter from a different angle.
The above general question can and should be further broken down into:
'Are young alcoholics being exposed to AA?'
'Are those young alcoholics staying in AA?'
Are young alcoholics being exposed to AA?
There are several means by which young people may be exposed to AA:
· General awareness within society
· Media aimed at young people
· Institutions attended by young people in general
· Institutions interfacing with young problem drinkers
· First contact with AA (e.g. through the telephone service or Internet)
In these five areas, we have existing structures: public awareness and information activities, and liaison officers at different levels, who deal with health, probation, prisons, etc. To the extent that young alcoholics are passing through prisons and the probation service and accessing health services, we already have structures in place to provide them with information about and access to AA.
Public information liaison officers often contact schools and further education establishments to discuss whether such institutions would like AA talks.
A small amount of brainstorming could extend the list of possible contacts that might currently be being missed (e.g. university or college help-lines for students in distress, services operated by local authorities aimed at helping young people experiencing difficulties etc.), but essentially this is work already falling within the scope of existing officers.
The problem throughout AA nationally is not the lack of available structure or opportunity to provide information and access to AA targeted at young people either as part of a greater strategy (e.g. providing meetings in prisons) or as a young people-specific project (e.g. schools talks) but the lack of AA members willing to fulfil the existing roles.
Two egregious examples are armed forces liaison and probation liaison. The average age of the target population with both these aspects of services is low: these are perfect opportunities to provide information to young people about AA. Most such posts in London Region (North) are vacant, however. In an ideal world, each such liaison officer could have a team of individuals carrying out the footwork.
The current structure provides for limitless growth in terms of service, provided that sufficient volunteers are forthcoming.
I would submit that, to solve the problem (to the extent that there is one) of young alcoholics not being provided with information about or access to AA, we do not need new structures—we need to use the existing structures to capacity.
Are those young alcoholics staying in AA?
Most newcomers to AA where I go to meetings are under 40, and many are under 30. Young people do not seem proportionately less likely than other age groups to come to AA.
As with other age groups, the attrition rate is high, however.
I do not believe the reason for this is peculiar to young people: rather, most AA groups are not so much groups but casual meetings where people offload about current difficulties or discuss their current emotional and mental state.
Longevity in AA, by contrast, typically requires resolute and repeated work on the Twelve Steps, engagement in the AA fellowship, and a ton of service.
The best way to ensure that young alcoholics stay in AA is therefore the best way to ensure that anyone stays in AA: practise strong, orthodox sponsorship and apply the Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions, and Twelve Concepts in the areas of recovery, fellowship, and service, centred around a group focus on its primary purpose: to carry the AA message (as set out in AA's basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous).
The young people's movement in AA
I have belonged to special interest groups in the past, in AA. I am not going to argue here for their disbandment or de-listing. I do believe, however, that they bring with them difficulties.
There are several valid arguments in favour of special interest groups. These are well-rehearsed, and I acknowledge these and will not reiterate them here. However:
The AA basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, describes us as people who normally would not mix. As soon as a group forms with some other unifying rallying point—alcoholism plus youth; alcoholism plus a profession; alcoholism plus a sexual orientation—that other rallying point can easily take centre stage. Some special interest groups can become more like social groups or pick-up joints (and that has been my lived experience; this is not speculation by an outsider).
Whilst such groups are non-restrictive in name, any common rallying point, even if secondary, will, in practice, prove exclusionary to those not in the subgroup, even where the participation of others is welcomed and encouraged.
One real problem with special interest groups is that they invariably affect all other groups in the catchment area. This is why they are all our business. A young person's group that drains the catchment area of young people and a gay and lesbian group that drains the catchment area of gays and lesbians will make it less likely that the remaining groups will be demographically representative of the population as a whole, and newcomers going to those other groups will be less likely to encounter people they identify with biographically.
Lastly, my primary problem is alcoholism. My primary solution is the solution to alcoholism. It was a salutary lesson when I was new in AA that the solution might come through anyone—gay or straight, young or old, male or female, agreeable or objectionable. It is my belief that the motley crew of an AA group where we have nothing in common except a common condition and a common solution is the ideal and healthiest growth medium for a stellar recovery. Special interest groups, in my case, fostered a sense of being 'special and different', of having special needs beyond those of a common-or-garden alcoholic. I did not.
AA does not have any more of a problem attracting or keeping young alcoholics than it has attracting or keeping any other alcoholics. There are no specific problems experienced in these areas by young alcoholics, at least least not that I experienced as a 21-year-old in AA, 19, 20 years ago. No new structures are needed. No new programme is needed.
What is required is an adherence to the primary purpose of groups, the propagation of the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the Twelve Concepts in the areas of recovery, fellowship and service, and, most importantly, volunteer AA members willing to take up the many vacant service positions in the existing service structure.