Bill Wilson cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous, which psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck called "the greatest positive event of the twentieth century." Wilson also experienced bouts of depression so profound that he found it difficult to get out of bed.
To cope with the problem, he tried vitamin supplements. He tried psychoanalysis. He even experimented with LSD.
Today, we understand much more about depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Powerful new treatments are available, and there's a growing understanding that the Twelve Steps of AA—which Wilson wrote—comprise a set of universal principles for mental health.
For example, Step One suggests that we stop denying the presence of a condition that needlessly restricts our thinking, feeling, or behavior. Healing begins when we accept the truth. This insight applies to addiction and any other mental health problem.
Step Two calls for a further admission--that we are powerless by ourselves to solve the problem. People in Twelve Step programs refer to this as the principle of surrender.
Step Three, however, reminds us that surrender is not the same as giving up. Rather, it means accepting help from any source outside ourselves—a "Higher Power." This term can refer to the God of traditional religions. But it can just as easily refer to a therapist, support group, or any other form of mental health treatment.
"For people who have struggled with a mental health condition, it is really a relief to acknowledge that it's not about them, that they're powerless over being able to resolve it by themselves," says Sue Hoisington, executive director of Hazelden's Mental Health Services in Minnesota. "They can say, 'I've been trying so hard to get rid of this depression or this anxiety, and finally I can surrender, get the needed help, and let go of it.' "
Steps Four through Nine offer more principles for restoring ourselves to sanity: Take an inventory of our strengths and weaknesses and be willing to release them.
An inventory for people with depression, for example, often includes beliefs such as, "People should always behave exactly the way I want," or "I always fail when I try something new." Psychologists call these irrational beliefs.
Also crucial is sharing our inventory with other people and making amends to any people who we've harmed. Step Ten suggests that we do things every day. And Step Eleven reminds us to keep asking for help.
Step Twelve plugs us in to the power of community, suggesting that we join with a group of others who adopt these principles.
According to Step Twelve, we need the presence of a supportive community to sustain long-term changes in our own beliefs and behaviors. The late Dan Anderson, a psychologist and Hazelden's president emeritus, liked to express the paradox of this healing principle as, "You alone can do it, but you can't do it alone."
Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA) is an organization based on the Twelve Steps as principles of mental health. Members of this group have been diagnosed with addiction and another psychiatric disorder. DRA publications condense the group's program of recovery into three sentences:
Another popular summary of Twelve Step principles reduces them to just three words: honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. Here is a program for anyone who seeks a life free from the limitations of mental illness.