Short Communication

Online SMART Recovery mutual-help groups: a comparison of the characteristics and experiences of men living in rural and urban regions of Australia


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Katinka van de Ven
1,2,3 PhD, Visiting Fellow, Drug Policy Modelling Program

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Frank P Deane
4 PhD, Honorary Fellow ORCID logo

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Peter J Kelly
4 PhD, Associate Dean (Research) ORCID logo

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Briony Larance
4 PhD, Senior Lecturer ORCID logo

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Alison K Beck
4 PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow * ORCID logo


1 Drug Policy Modelling Program, Social Policy Research Centre, University of NSW, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia

2 Centre for Rural Criminology, Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia

3 360Edge, PO Box 359, Elwood, Vic. 3184, Australia

4 School of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia

ACCEPTED: 4 June 2024

early abstract:

Introduction: Harms arising from alcohol and other drug (AOD) use are disproportionately felt by men living in rural locations. The detrimental impact of AOD use is compounded by a range of barriers to help-seeking. Online recovery support services (including mutual-help groups) are increasingly used to reach people who might not otherwise seek support for AOD use. Scant research examines the experiences of men attending online mutual-help groups with the little available evidence focused on 12-step approaches and people living in urban areas. This short communication compared the characteristics and experiences of rural and urban men attending online SMART Recovery mutual-help groups in Australia.
Methods: A link to a voluntary online questionnaire was automatically provided at the end of each online group as part of routine data collection. Questions assessed participants’ demographics, main reason for attending, engagement, experiences and perceived utility of the group.. This study is a secondary analysis examining data provided by male attendees located in rural (n=259) and urban areas (n = 996).
Results: Alcohol use for both rural and urban attendees (74.6% vs 77.6%) was the most frequently reported reason for attending SMART Recovery groups. Rural attendees were older than their urban counterparts (p=0.002) and more frequently endorsed ‘other’ drug use as a reason for attending (26.2% vs. 16.1% p<0.001). Participants reported a high level of satisfaction with online SMART Recovery Groups. No significant differences were found between the two groups. Rural and urban men reported that they felt welcome (93.1% vs 95.1%) and supported (90% vs 92.5%), had the opportunity to contribute to discussions (91.5% vs 92.1%), and felt the group was well facilitated (91.1% vs 94.4%). Rural and urban attendees also experienced the groups as helpful (88.8% vs 91.8%), took away practical strategies (86.5% vs 85.2%) and planned to continue to attend the groups in the future (91.1% vs 92.3%). Around a quarter of rural (21.4%) and urban (26.8%) attendees experienced technical difficulties during the meeting.
Discussion and Conclusions: This study contributes new knowledge regarding similarities and differences in the experience of online SMART Recovery groups from the perspective of men living in rural and urban areas. Despite around a quarter of participants experiencing technical difficulties, their self-reported engagement, experience, and perceived utility of the online group were highly rated. Online recovery support services provide a promising option for reaching men who experience issues with their AOD use, particularly in rural areas where there is limited access to face-to-face services.
Keywords: alcohol and other drugs treatment, digital recovery support services, men, mutual-help groups, rural health, SMART Recovery, substance use disorders