The benefits and challenges of virtual SMART recovery mutual-help groups: Participant and facilitator perspectives

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International Journal of Drug Policy


Background: COVID-19 prompted widespread transition of face-to-face mutual-help groups to virtual delivery. Current understanding of the experience of virtual mutual-help groups is limited to 12-step approaches or asynchronous groups (e.g., forums). This paper explores participant and facilitator perspectives regarding the benefits and challenges of accessing SMART Recovery mutual-help groups virtually via videoconference. Methods: A self-selected convenience sample of participants (n = 29) and facilitators (n = 15) from SMART Recovery mutual-help groups in Australia were enrolled. Participants and facilitators were sampled to reflect experience of virtual groups delivered via videoconference (‘online’), face-to-face groups (‘face-to-face’) or both types of groups (‘both’). Telephone qualitative interviews were conducted using a semi-structured interview guide. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analysed using iterative categorisation. Results: Participant and facilitators discussed their experience across eight interconnected themes benefits were typically discussed with regard to the (1) availability, (2) ease of access and (3) value add of the chat feature in online groups. Challenges largely pertained to (1) in-group engagement, (2) group size, (3) non-verbal cues, (4) social interaction and (5) technology problems. The impact of these challenges on participant and facilitator experience varied, and neither modality was consistently identified as superior. Conclusions: SMART Recovery mutual-help groups provided participants with another option for accessing mutual-help and appealed to different people under different circumstances. Depending on the needs and preferences of the individual, online SMART Recovery mutual-help groups may help to mitigate a range of barriers to help seeking and may also engage people otherwise unable or reluctant to engage in treatment. To inform training, practice and policy, improved understanding of the individual and contextual factors that enhance participant engagement, experience and outcomes is needed.

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