Does AA cause suicides?
Dear Stanton Peele,
I have spent the last two hours on your your web site, which I found from the Smart Recovery web site, and I am incredibly, gratefully, hopefully impressed. It’s a sad world that does not make your name a household word.
Did you become a lawyer to get inside the legal battles in regards to addiction treatment and mandatory AA meetings? I have watched beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, yet addicted people become bland, reactionary, sober people due to forced involvement with 12 step groups.
My youngest brother, a 15 year old clinically depressed pot smoker, was required to attend 20 AA meetings in 30 days by an alternative high school for “troubled teenagers.” One of the last things he said to his friends before he committed suicide was, “staying sober is too hard.” AA had convinced him that smoking a joint was a fate worse than death, proved him powerless and addicted, and in his depressed state, he believed it. I wish I would have know about REBT, CBT, RR, MM, SMART or any of the other alternatives to 12 steps and “family systems therapy” back then…
Thanks for reading and best wishes,
Thanks for your most excellent message. Among the many valuable things you point out are the unacknowledged casualties from 12-step approaches. I always say that AA is like God — both only get credit for the good associated with their names. But there is a tremendous cost from the many downsides of 12-step groups — the guilt they inspire among those who cannot “get with the program,” their insistence on lifetime labeling, the incestuous relationships (often sexually active) that they encourage. Your younger brother’s suicide is far from the first I am aware of among AA members. We cannot say that AA causes suicide — only that there is tremendous “denial” among AA advocates that such things happen, and thus they are completely unable to anticipate and prevent such harms when they begin to occur.
To illustrate, let me relate a story from one of my favorite research publications, the Star (April 6, 1999 — it is significant that this story would be unlikely to be featured on mainstream media). Robert Pastorelli is an actor best known for playing a house painter who never finishes painting the home of the title character on the TV series Murphy Brown (who was played as a successful Betty Ford Clinic graduate by Candice Bergen). His lover and the mother of his year-old child, Charemon Jonovich, shot herself in the head in front of Pastorelli.
According to the Star, the two met at AA. “They frequently attended AA meetings together” where they “openly discussed their often volatile relationship.” (Think of the repercussions if the woman had killed herself while attending a controlled-drinking clinic!) The article described the dead woman as a high school athlete who didn’t “wear makeup, drink or go to parties” until she came to Los Angeles. She was 25 when she killed herself — Pastorelli was 44 — suggesting that she was not much older than 21 when she first attended AA and met her last lover.
In general, placing young people in AA is scary, if not abusive. I once attended a suicide prevention program run by the professional in charge of substance abuse programs in my school district. I asked her how many suicides had occurred in our district. In her tenure of about a decade, there had been one she knew about.
The boy who killed himself played on my son’s soccer team. A slender, gifted athlete, he floated around the field like the wind. When I heard that he had joined AA at age 14, I was shocked. He blew his brains out in front of his home during the season. I learned that his parents were divorced, his father lived in Japan, and his mother had remarried and had more children.
My son said he understood why this boy committed suicide. He said he thought it was because he was so religious (the boy prayed before each game). I told my son: “Only when your religion is against you can it cause you to kill yourself.”