The Higher Power Project (HPP): a study of contemporary spirituality in addiction and 12-Step recovery
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Chester
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeHealth
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
The estimated annual cost of addiction to drugs and alcohol in the UK is
£37 billion, of which £1.2 billion is spent on treatment. Twelve-Step
Programmes (TSPs) and Fellowships (TSFs) are proven to be as effective in
the short term and more effective in the long term than other
interventions (Project Match, 1997). The Higher Power Project (HPP) maps
the spiritual and transformational experiences of those in TSPs. As
governmental emphasis shifts from `harm reduction' towards `recovery',
HPP's findings offer policy-makers, professionals and service-users a
greater understanding of the `spiritual dimension' of TSPs and
Fellowships, thereby informing policy and influencing practice.
The Higher Power Project (HPP), launched in 2012 at the University of
Chester, aims to map, evaluate and engage with the debate within
healthcare and addictions treatment concerning the nature of the language
of `spirituality' within the process of recovery (http://www.chester.ac.uk/higherpowerproject).
The key researchers on the HPP are Dr Wendy Dossett (Principal
Investigator and Senior Lecturer at Chester since September 2010) and
Professor John Stoner (Researcher at Chester since May 2012).
TSPs are used by those recovering from addiction through mutual-aid
Anonymous Fellowships (estimated worldwide membership ca. 3 million) and
in a large proportion of addictions Treatment Centres. TSPs describe
themselves as `spiritual not religious', but the use of the terms `God',
`God of our understanding' and `Higher Power' in several of the Twelve
Steps of recovery lead many professionals, as well as addicts themselves,
to conclude that the steps are explicitly religious or even specifically
Christian. This factor has been shown to be the most significant
impediment to accessing TSPs/Fellowships, amongst professionals and
addicts alike (Day et al, 2010). Dossett's article (2013) argues that in
TSPs, there is a shift from explicit Christian terminology to that of
non-religious spirituality. She locates this change in the context of the
emergence of non-religious or secular spiritualties in late- or
post-modern Western society, along with the predominance of a subjective
turn in religious belief and affiliation.
Dossett then places this analytical framework alongside empirical
findings from a qualitative study conducted as Phase 1 of HPP of
ex-residents from a Treatment Centre in West Wales in sustained recovery.
This study shows that whilst TSPs and membership of an Anonymous
Fellowship(s) are central to their recoveries, the majority of them speak
of a `spiritual' approach rather than any kind of religious conversion.
Whilst these initial conclusions cannot be extrapolated to those in TSP
recovery generally because of the small sample involved, they are of
considerable interest because they suggest that (for this group)
characterisations of TSPs as creedal or religious in the traditional
sense, or requiring a conversion experience, are inappropriate. Work being
undertaken by the HPP will thus produce data and develop theory to inform
reflection on the language used within Fellowships and generate an
evidence-based understanding of the phenomenology of `non-religious
spirituality' amongst those undertaking TSPs.
Phase 2 of the qualitative research started in January 2013 and is
supported by a grant from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust (£25.8K) over two
years. It involves extending the pilot study to addicts from a wider
breadth of cultures, social backgrounds, treatment centres and Anonymous
Fellow-ships. Participants will be drawn from treatment centres in the UK
and Anonymous Fellowship members from the UK, Ireland, Europe and North
America. Data from these different groups will enable comparative studies
across fellowships and treatment modalities, as well as across the
demographic categories of age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, wealth,
social class, education and other markers of social inclusion/exclusion.
To date, the data from this study (70 participants) indicate that 75%
would regard themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious".
These findings are already being actively disseminated to, and
influencing, a wide range of audiences, as described below.
References to the research
Dossett, W. (2013) Addiction, Spirituality and Twelve Step Programmes. International
Social Work special edition `Social Work, Religion and
Spirituality'. Vol 56, No.3: 369-383. DOI: 10.1177/0020872813475689.
Selected by Psychology Progress, Canadian-based (international)
association of academics and psychiatric practitioners (http://psychologyprogress.com/),
as a `Key Research Article', September 2013: `selected from a wide variety
of peer reviewed journals and ... judged to be of major importance in
their respective fields'. http://psychologyprogress.com/addiction-spirituality-and-12-step-programmes/.
Details of the impact
HPP's impact strategy incorporates academics, organizations and
professionals, and Anonymous Fellowships themselves. These form networks
of stake-holders who facilitate core research and data-gathering, and
build training and knowledge transfer projects. These in turn are having
tangible impact in the form of evidence-based policy initiatives and
further collaborative action- research.
HPP Conferences at Chester have been a primary forum for raising
the profile of HPP findings and establishing a broad-based network of
- The first event, "A spiritual illness with a spiritual solution"
(March 2012) was attended by 70 delegates from clinical, academic and
- A two-day event in February 2013 comprised three sessions, reflecting
the diverse and transnational nature of agencies involved:
- "Faith-based solutions to addiction" (colloquium);
- "Recovery from Addiction: Transatlantic inter-perspectives"
- "Practitioners' Seminar".
Papers at Academic Conferences provide opportunities to
communicate and test out HPP's core research and its potential impact on
support for addiction and recovery.
British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group
(March 2012): A critical appraisal of the language of "Higher Power"
Society for the Study of Addictions Annual Symposium (November
2012): Higher Power recovery treatments as "post-modern negotiated
Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Engaging outside
Academia (The Open University, May 2013): `I don't do God': The
potential contribution of Religious Studies to addictions recovery
25th Anniversary Conference of INFORM
(London School of Economics, January 2014): Secularisation and the
past, present and future of Alcoholics Anonymous
Seminar at Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health (Durham
University, February 2014): Beyond Cult or Cure: The negotiated
language of 'higher power' in contemporary twelve-step programmes
2. Public Engagement, Training and Continuing Professional
Development (October 2012-July 2013)
Presentations and workshops represent direct forms of engagement
with policy-makers and service providers/users, helping to consolidate
HPP's networking across the public and voluntary sectors, including
faith-based organizations. Such events have included:
- London Buddhist Vihara
- Training day for staff from Hafan Wen Detox Centre, CAIS, & AVOW
- AA UK Board Annual Seminar, presentations on HPP and TSF
- Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs Annual Workshop, presentation on
- Recovery Academy Symposium, workshop on `Championing Recovery'
- Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust Spirituality and
Mental Health Symposium
- Rhoserchan Treatment Centre, Aberystwyth
- Castle Craig Treatment Hospital, Scotland
- Parkview Treatment Centre, Liverpool
- Public Health England
- Consultation Event on Welsh Government's Recovery Strategy hosted by
AA for Professionals and AMs at the Senedd in Cardiff
Public Engagement and Social Media extend the reach of HPP's
influence across researchers', service-users' and practitioners' forums:
- HPP has more than 1,200 followers on Twitter.
- The 350 strong database receiving regular updates range from
policy-makers, TSF board members, research funders, addictions
professionals, social and healthcare workers, to addicts in recovery.
- More than 100 addicts/alcoholics in 12-Step recovery globally have
expressed an interest in participating in the HPP study.
- Dossett appeared on BBC Radio 4 "Beyond Belief" 18/03/2013 on a panel
speaking about spirituality and addiction recovery.
3. Research Partnerships are an indication of HPP's
contribution to practice in the form of policy initiatives and will
generate further evidence-based evaluation in collaboration with a range
Wrexham Recovery from Addiction Pilot Project (WRAPP): a
partnership project with Wrexham County Council and its service
provider, AVOW, to trial Twelve-Step Facilitation with twenty clients
with substance misuse issues. This intervention could be extended across
the UK and play a significant role in the delivery of the Government's
new recovery policy.
AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award: joint application with
Castle Craig Hospital which proposes PhD studentships starting in 2014.
Projects will explore spiritual dimensions of recovery in the UK's best
known treatment hospitals, and will produce industry — relevant
Life in Recovery: discussions are underway with Monash
University (Melbourne) to roll out David Best's Life in Recovery
with HPP participants.
4. Indicative Impact
- Addictions professionals across North Wales are now more likely to
suggest TS participation. This significant culture change, resulting
from a better informed professional community, is evidenced by local AA
groups reporting more members from treatment services, and the HPP
winning a bid (WRAPP) to enable TSF training.
- Preparations are in hand for an AA `Conference Question' on engaging
more closely with the treatment profession. It is significant that a
presentation from the HPP resulted in the initiation of this process,
leading potentially to substantial culture change within AA itself
towards greater engagement with the recovery agenda.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- A consultant psychiatrist at Woodbourne Priory Hospital, Birmingham
may be contacted to corroborate the impact of the research for
- A trustee of the Society for the Study of Addiction may be contacted
to corroborate the impact of a more nuanced understanding of
spirituality in Anonymous Fellowships amongst addictions professionals.
- Representatives of the Association of Voluntary Organisations Wrexham
(AVOW) and the Community Safety Team at Wrexham County Borough Council
may be contacted to corroborate the impact of the project amongst
addicts in Wrexham.
- The impact of the HPP for those in the addictions treatment industry
can be corroborated by contacting a representative of Castle Craig
- In addition, the University holds on file correspondence from a range
of professionals describing their perspective on the impact of the HPP.