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My Experience with SMART Recovery

In my previous role working inside HMP Winchester, as a fully trained SMART facilitator, I had the pleasure of facilitating weekly SMART Recovery meetings. I often encountered clients on the wings who had never engaged in any form of treatment in the past, certainly not any type of support group, and were often put off by the mention of God, which is a key component of the 12 steps. I also had a lot of clients attending the SMART groups who had previously engaged in 12 step fellowship and were looking for something else to complement the limited amount of 12 step fellowship meetings inside the prison, of which there was only one a week.

What is SMART?

The acronym SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training. It is a science based programme of recovery encompassing elements of REBT (Rational Emotive Bahvioural Therapy) CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Motivational Interviewing. Meetings are set up and held to help people address their addictive behaviours to substances, such as heroin, alcohol, cocaine, nicotine etc. and/or compulsive behaviours such as gambling, shopping, food and/or sex.

Similarly to 12 step fellowships, SMART is a form of mutual aid and is peer led, meaning that those who have had direct experience of addiction and are now in recovery set up the running of and facilitate SMART Recovery meetings. Weekly meetings are held throughout the UK and all over the world. Meetings run for 60 – 90 mins, follow a particular structure of a brief check in with each member of the group, agenda setting based on what was spoke about in the check in, the main group work and discussion between group participants, which would always include the use of at least one SMART tool, and finishing up with a check out from each group participant on how they found the group and how they are. There’s at least 16 different tools to choose from, which are constantly being updated and improved as science progresses, to help people to learn ways to cope and recover from their addictive behaviours.


SMART Recovery started in the USA in 1994 from the offshoot of another recovery programme called Rational Recovery. Directly preceding the starting of SMART Recovery the organization known as Rational Recovery had split into two different organisations – “for profit” and “not for profit”. The “not for profit” side of Rational Recovery soon decided to change its name to SMART Recovery and started building on the already established Rational Recovery programme.

SMART Recovery slowly grew in strength and numbers in the intervening twenty years since it was established and there are now SMART recovery meetings in Australia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, throughout the USA and even online meetings.

Interestingly it was a prison officer serving at HMP Inverness who first brought SMART Recovery to the UK. In 2001 a man by the name of Fraser Ross, who was looking for a recovery programme specifically for prisoners with addiction issues, made contact with founding members of SMART Recovery in the USA and with their help was able to bring the InsideOut group work programme to be used throughout the Scottish Prison Service. The InsideOut programme is a group-work programme based on SMART but specifically for those in prison.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the first community based meeting was started, again in Inverness. This led to various substance misuse services in the UK gaining interest in SMART Recovery and began using the programme in their services throughout the UK. In ten years from having just ten SMART Recovery when it started in the UK there is now over 400 meetings throughout the UK and this figure continues to grow as new meetings are set up.

4 Point Programme

SMART uses a self-empowering approach to help meeting participants by way of a 4 point programme which includes:

  • build and maintain motivation
  • cope with urges
  • manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • live a balanced life.

SMART Recovery offers a proven and effective method and a real alternative to 12 Step fellowships, though it can also be used to compliment attendance at 12 step fellowship meetings, with many meeting participants doing both 12 step fellowships and SMART.

Similarities and the Differences

SMART offers a real alternative to 12 step fellowships in that SMART uses a more scientific approach rather than a spiritual one, though is accepting of participants who believe in spirituality. SMART is opposed to the view of powerlessness over addiction, it’s all about choice for SMART, you choose to use and choose when to stop. SMART believes more in self-reliance rather than handing one’s will over to something external. In SMART meetings cross talk is actively encouraged, as well as group discussion between meeting participants, a definite no no in twelve step fellowship meetings! The use of labels, such as addict and alcoholic are also discouraged in SMART.

Though in saying all that both SMART and twelve step can complement each other quite well, I have experience of doing both and have gained a lot from doing both. They are both peer-led recovery support groups. Both are a form of mutual aid so there’s a chance to identify with other meeting participants. A tool in SMART called the ABC is similar to fourth step in a way. They both view abstinence as the best form of longstanding and successful recovery. But ultimately they are both well-established recovery support groups which have a proven track record in helping people to recover from addictions and learn to live a life without the use of drugs.


So why not check out a SMART Recovery group in your area? Or check out one the numerous online meetings? Attendance at a SMART Recovery meeting and using some of the tools involved can only strengthen your recovery. The language may be slightly different between the two approaches but they both have the same end goal in mind. Attend either a SMART meeting or NA/AA and you’re guaranteed to meet some positive people, who are abstinent and are leading enjoyable lives.

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