man in a support groupWatching a friend or family member succumb to the effects of addiction can be heartbreaking. While you want to do everything you can to help your loved one avoid the damage of substance abuse, you might also be reluctant to interfere. Many people worry that by speaking up about their concerns, they will make the problem worse or drive their loved one away. In fact, stepping in to intervene in the course of addiction could be the best thing you can do to stop the course of this deadly disease.

When someone you love is deeply involved with alcoholism, drug abuse, or an eating disorder, holding an intervention could be the only way to persuade them to get treatment.

The sooner you plan the intervention, and the more carefully you prepare the meeting, the greater your chances of helping someone you care about avoid the devastating consequences of addictive behavior.

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What is an intervention?


An intervention is a planned, rehearsed meeting with the purpose to persuade someone to get help for a substance use or eating disorder. Friends, relatives, coworkers, employers, and other people who are concerned about the individual are invited to attend. Participants usually read personal statements about how the individual’s behavior has affected them. The individual is then presented with a treatment contract, which includes specific consequences if he or she refuses to get help.

An intervention can take many forms, but in order to be effective, the meeting should meet the following criteria:

  • An element of surprise. The individual in question should not be aware of the purpose of the meeting ahead of time. The element of surprise makes it more likely that the individual will be present and pay attention. It also disarms the substance abuser, potentially breaking through his or her denial.
  • A controlled environment. Holding an intervention in the individual’s home may be the only option, but the outcome may be better if the conversation is held in a neutral setting, like a conference room, an office, or even a motel. Getting the individual out of his or her daily environment helps to reinforce the element of surprise and the seriousness of the meeting. If the individual is likely to become hostile or aggressive, a neutral environment may also be safer.
  • A prearranged treatment plan. Before the intervention takes place, the participants should have a treatment plan in mind. This includes choosing a course of treatment, such as inpatient or outpatient rehab, and even selecting a facility. Without a plan, the individual has too much flexibility to avoid the consequences of addiction and continue drinking or using.
  • Immediate follow-through. Once the intervention has been held, follow-through should be as fast as possible. The more time lapses between the meeting and admission to a treatment program, the more opportunity the individual has to evade recovery. If the individual refuses treatment, the intervention team must be prepared to follow through with the consequences, whether this is the denial of privileges, a marital separation, or changes in a custody agreement.

A substance abuse counselor or therapist who specializes in interventions (known as an “interventionist”) can be a crucial partner in carrying out an effective meeting.

While most people in the general public have never taken part in an intervention, these experts have extensive training and experience in the process.

According to the Mayo Clinic, it is especially important to involve an intervention specialist if there is a possibility that your loved one may become violent, self-destructive, or suicidal during the meeting. People who abuse multiple drugs or who are struggling with mental illness may be more likely to behave in irrational or unpredictable ways when they’re confronted. To ensure the best outcome, talk with a therapist before you confront your loved one.

When is it time for an intervention?

You don’t have to wait until the addicted individual or someone else in your household has been seriously harmed to plan an intervention. If you’ve tried having a one-on-one conversation with your loved one without success — including the proposal of therapy or rehab — it’s time to consider a more formal, organized solution.

According to the “Stages of Change” model of addiction and recovery, the substance abuser goes through several stages of awareness and denial before he or she is ready to get help:

  1. Pre-contemplation: The individual knows that he or she has a problem, but isn’t interested in changing in the near future.
  2. Contemplation: The individual is aware of the problem and has begun to think about getting help within the next six months or so.
  3. Preparation: Having acknowledged the problem, the individual is prepared to take positive steps to resolve it within the next month.
  4. Action: At this stage, the individual has been taking positive steps to recover from substance abuse for six months.
  5. Maintenance: After six months of action, the individual enters the maintenance stage, where the positive behavior continues.
  6. Relapse or recycle: The patient returns to drinking or using, then proceeds through the stages again. This may occur more than once before the maintenance stage becomes permanent.

When you hold your intervention, your loved one is likely to be at stages 1 or 2 of this process. Stage 6 may apply for people who have made a commitment to recovery in the past, but who have relapsed into their old behavior. Substance abusers in stage 1 may become angry, hostile, or even aggressive during an intervention. Alternatively, they may use emotional manipulation — such as tears, guilt, or promises — to try to avoid going to treatment. Understanding where your loved one is in the stages of change can help you plan your intervention effectively and prepare for the possible contingencies.

What format should it take?

An intervention may take many formats, from a sincere conversation among close friends and relatives to a larger, organized meeting. The tone of the discussion may vary depending on the individual’s personality and the severity of his or her denial. An intervention can be stern and confrontational, or gentle and persuasive. The participants who plan the meeting should determine ahead of time how the participants should approach the individual, so that their attitudes and tones are consistent.

The concerned parties, together with a therapist or other advisor, should decide how an intervention should be structured. However, it can be helpful to review some of the popular intervention models to choose the most effective path:

Developed by Dr. Vernon Johnson in the 1960s, the Johnson model has become one of the most frequently used approaches among intervention specialists. A study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse showed that the Johnson model was more effective at getting patients into treatment than four other referral methods.

In this model, the family and other members of the social network hold a dialogue with the addicted individual at a prearranged meeting. However, their goal is not to confront the target individual with anger, hostility, or accusations, but to express their concern and love. Each participant reads a letter out loud that describes how much they care about the individual. The purpose of the meeting is to motivate the individual to seek treatment according to the family’s plan. The individual may be presented with up to three options for treatment; however, there are consequences if he or she refuses all of these alternatives.

In classic intervention models, the meeting takes place in a controlled environment, and the target individual is not informed about the purpose of the meeting in advance. In the family systemic model, multiple meetings are held with a therapist or counselor to discuss how addiction has affected the family unit as a whole. Instead of attributing the problem to one individual, the whole group engages in therapy, with the ultimate goal being to encourage the addict to go to treatment.

The addict is informed about the purpose of these meetings and involved from the beginning. When the addict enters rehab, the family continues to participate by attending counseling sessions, group therapy, and educational training.

The invitational model takes a similar form to the Johnson and systemic models, but the individual is given more freedom in choosing the course of treatment. The participants gather to encourage or “invite” the substance abuser to enter a rehab program of his or her choosing. If the chosen approach fails, another intervention must be held to select a new course of recovery.

This model has been criticized for leaving too much control in the hands of the addict, who is likely to choose the least effective form of treatment in order to have an excuse to return to using. However, for substance abusers who have already expressed a desire to stop, this approach can be extremely effective.

Choosing the individuals who will be present at an intervention isn’t always easy. Some people might harbor resentment or hostility against the addict, which could take the meeting in a negative direction. Other people may fear retaliation if they participate in an intervention. In order to achieve the optimal effect, the meeting should involve people who have been directly impacted by the addict’s disease, as well as one or more neutral authority figures, including:

  • Spouses or partners
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Parents
  • Friends
  • Coworkers
  • Employers
  • Spiritual advisors
  • Therapists
  • Intervention specialists

If your goal is to motivate and encourage your loved one to go to rehab, the ideal participant should support the individual in his or her recovery. Friends or associates who resent the individual may do more harm than good if they make accusations or hurl insults at the addict. Many intervention specialists recommend rehearsing the meeting in advance, so the participants have the opportunity to explore their own attitudes and prejudices about addiction before confronting the substance abuser.

What happens after the intervention?

As soon as the intervention ends, the next step should be implementing the treatment plan. In urgent cases, this might include expediting admission to the rehab facility and arranging immediate transportation. Regardless of the conditions of the plan, the participants should be prepared to carry them out quickly and efficiently, and to follow through on any consequences if the addict refuses to attempt change.

How can I request help?

woman talking on her cellphoneOnce you’ve decided that it’s time to plan an intervention, you can ask for guidance from a doctor, counselor, or therapist with experience in addiction treatment. An intervention specialist is an expert who has been trained in implementing this type of meeting. An interventionist can advise and support you throughout the process, from the planning stage through rehab and beyond.

At The Recovery Village, we know that not all individuals who need help will enter treatment willingly. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from the intensive therapy of a residential recovery program. We offer a full continuum of care for individuals suffering from addictive disorders at our beautiful facility in Umatilla, Florida. If someone in your life needs help, call our intake counselors today for answers and support.

Intervention Handbook was last modified: November 1st, 2016 by The Recovery Village