For decades, the United States has meticulously measured the prevalence of alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and related problems. The question of how many U.S. adults have resolved such problems has received far less attention until recently. In 2012, I reviewed published studies of clinical and community populations in the U.S. that reported rates of recovery from such problems, and two recent landmark studies provide the best data yet on recovery prevalence in the U.S.
Answering the basic question, “How many people are in addiction recovery in the United States?” is complicated because of differences in definitions of the problem and the solution. Reported outcomes differ depending on the language used in the surveys. Survey responses vary when questions include references to addiction, substance use disorder, or problem with alcohol or other drugs. They similarly differ depending on the resolution language: abstinence, sobriety, recovery, remission, controlled (moderate) use, or once had but no longer have an AOD problem. Recovery prevalence estimates expand and contract based on expansive or restrictive problem and solution definitions. In spite of such challenges, a series of important studies reveal a surprisingly high prevalence of lifetime AOD problem resolution that challenge the notion that “recovery is the exception to the rule.”
My 2012 review of recent studies concluded that 5.3% to 15.3% of the U.S. adult population are in remission from significant alcohol or other drug problems—a conservative estimate of 25 million people (not including those in remission from nicotine dependence alone). The reviewed surveys included the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study, National Comorbidity Survey, National Health Interview, National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey, and the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. In community studies published since 2000, 54% of people who met lifetime criteria for a substance use disorder no longer met such criteria at the time of follow-up. Problem resolution strategies spanned complete AOD abstinence and deceleration of AOD use.
In 2017, Kelly and colleagues published the results from the National Recovery Study—a U.S. survey of the course of AOD problems in the adult population. Survey findings revealed that 9.1% (22.35 million) U.S. adults responded in the affirmative to the question, “Did you used to have a problem with drugs or alcohol, but no longer do?” Of those who had resolved an AOD problem, 46% self-identified as being “in recovery.”
In 2020, Jones and colleagues published an analysis of recovery data from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Of the 27.5 million U.S. adults reporting ever having an AOD problem (11% of the adult population), 75% (more than 20.5 million) reported no longer experiencing such problems. Both the Kelly and Jones surveys found both supported and unsupported pathways of recovery, including a substantial portion of people who had achieved recovery without participation in formal treatment or recovery mutual aid groups.
In 2020, Stefanovics and colleagues published a survey of more than 1,200 veterans who had experienced an alcohol use disorder during their lifetimes as part of the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. More than three-quarters of U.S. veterans surveyed who reported a lifetime alcohol use disorder (AUD) no longer met diagnostic criteria for AUD at the time of the survey.
In 2001, recovery advocates from across the United States participated in a summit in St. Paul, Minnesota that formally launched a new addiction recovery advocacy movement in the U.S. The kinetic ideas at the core of this movement included: 1) Addiction recovery is a reality in the lives of millions of individuals and families, and 2) There are many pathways to recovery and ALL are cause for celebration. Those core propositions, grounded in the experiential knowledge of people in recovery across the U.S., now have substantial scientific support. Recovery is not just a possible outcome for AOD problems; it is the probable and likely outcome when people have access to formal and informal recovery support resources.
Jones, C. M., Noonan, R. K., Compton, W. M. (2020). Prevalence and correlates of ever having a substance use problem and substance use recovery status among adults in the United States, 2018 [Epub ahead of print]. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 214, 108169. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108169
Kelly, J. F., Bergman, B., Hoeppner, B., Vilsaint, C., & White, W. L. (2017) Prevalence, pathways, and predictors of recovery from drug and alcohol problems in the United States Population: Implications for practice, research, and policy. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 181, 162-169.
Stefanovics, E. A., Gavriel-Fried, B., Potenza, M. N., & Pietrzak, R. H. (2020). Current drinking patterns in US veterans with a lifetime history of alcohol use disorder: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, September. DOI: 10.1080/00952990.2020.1803893
White, W. L. (2012). Recovery/remission from substance use disorders: An analysis of reported outcomes in 415 scientific studies, 1868-2011. Chicago: Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center; Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental disAbilites; Northeast Addiction Technology Transfer Center.
White, W. L. (2007). The new recovery advocacy movement in America. Addiction, 102(5), 696-703.