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Intervention: Is It the Answer?

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It can be devastating to watch a loved one struggle with addiction and may feel desperate to help your loved one get treatment. Interventions can help people with substance use disorders recognize their need for treatment, but a successful intervention takes a lot of planning and preparation. Family and friends must learn about possible pitfalls and risk factors.

Table of Contents

What Is an Intervention?

During an intervention for drug addiction, family and friends gather to support their loved ones. They express their concerns about the person’s drug or alcohol use. At the end of the intervention, they urge the person to seek treatment. The overall goal is to help the person understand that they have a substance use problem. Family, friends, and professionals like a trained interventionist can offer guidance as the person struggling with drug addiction considers their recovery options. 1

Interventions for drug addiction have become a staple of Hollywood and reality television shows. Sometimes, interventions also appear in movies or comic books.  Real-life interventions usually don’t resemble fictional interventions. The media portrays interventions as frightening or dramatic. But real-life interventions can be quiet events. They typically involve a small group of people coming together to support a loved one. 2

How Does Intervention for Drug Abuse Work?

Addiction specialists have created several types of interventional models. 3 Sometimes, people with no medical background develop strategies for intervention. Before arranging an intervention, do some research to ensure that your chosen model is safe and appropriate for your loved one’s situation.

Some models are intended for and work best in a clinical setting. 4 If you attempt these models without a trained specialist, you may not have the experience you’re hoping for or achieve the desired result.

Tough Love Models

Using a “tough love” approach, family members often present the person with consequences related to their substance misuse. This is the intervention model typically depicted in books, movies, and television shows. In these interventions, the person’s loved ones may threaten to cut ties or stop providing financial support. Sometimes the family commits to file for sole custody of the person’s children. These types of interventions can be helpful in rare instances, when the person struggling with addiction has not faced any significant consequences directly related to their substance misuse and needs to understand the potential impact on their interpersonal relationships, family dynamic, or financial and housing stability before they’re willing to accept help.5

But tough love interventions can be risky and stressful. A compassionate approach may result in a more successful intervention. Get help from an addiction specialist before attempting tough love strategies.5

Tough-love models often include confrontation. The group might discuss the person’s “offenses.” They may read impact statement scripts to demonstrate that the person’s addiction has harmed them personally or the individual’s other their loved ones. These strategies can potentially be effective, but confrontational intervention can often go off-script. The group may become emotional, and participants may start relying on blame– and guilt-based statements.

A “responsibility without blame” approach might be more effective. Under this framework, families encourage the person to take responsibility without creating an atmosphere of shame.6 Consider enlisting the help of a trained interventionist who can mediate and guide the dialogue during the intervention.

Family Systemic Models

Under the is Family Systemic Model, the group offers emotional support.7 They emphasize that they want to see the person enter recovery. Often, they share their concerns about the person’s health and happiness. Family members express their feelings with a sense of compassion. They acknowledge the impact of addiction while urging the person to seek care.5 This approach may help prevent the person from feeling attacked during an intervention.7

Families often experience the personal effects of their loved one’s addiction. They may seek therapy individually or as a family. The family works together to overcome logistical problems. Many people with substance use disorders are reluctant to seek treatment because they worry about losing their job, not being able to fulfill household duties, or experiencing negative consequences related to missing childcare responsibilities and parenting milestones. Families can make plans for these challenges as a group in this type of intervention.8

CRAFT and ARISE Models

A trained specialist guides patients and families through these models. First, an addiction specialist provides the family with extensive guidance. The specialist helps participants understand the nature of addiction. The group learns to modulate their emotions during an intervention. The specialist can then use clinical techniques to urge the person to seek care.9,10

What Interventional Model Should I Use?

If you’re not sure which approach is right for your loved one, an addiction specialist can help. They create an intervention plan tailored to your loved one’s unique needs. Each interventional approach and strategy has a purpose. Some techniques may help certain individuals, but others can be harmful.

A specialist can determine the approach most likely to have positive outcomes like your loved one acknowledging the extent of their substance misuse, creating healthy boundaries you agree on as a group, or your loved one agreeing to start specific addiction recovery measures.3

Do Interventions Work?

Many types of interventional models can be highly successful. They often end with the person agreeing to seek care. But, regardless of the model used, successful intervention takes a lot of preparation. The success rate of the intervention has been shown to increase when each individual attending has an identified role with concrete actions they can take to contribute to the overall success of the intervention. 11

What are the Intervention Strategies For Drug Addiction?

Interventions should never be rushed. Sometimes, anxious families quickly stage an intervention immediately when they learn of a loved one’s addiction. But if you rush through your planning stage, your intervention may end with hurt feelings and not produce the positive outcomes you intended. If you’re not sure how to do an intervention for drug use the following guidelines.1

Choose a Goal

Before the intervention, meet with the other participants to discuss your goals. Settle on a single goal and check that all participants agree. In most cases, the purpose of an intervention is to convince the person to speak to a qualified treatment provider.1

Whenever possible, avoid making demands. It can be tempting to insist that your loved one seeks care today. But if they aren’t ready to accept the treatment you envision, they may feel pressured or coerced. Rather than urging the person to check themselves into inpatient rehab immediately, you can suggest that they call a helpline where they can learn more about treatment options.

If you have an interventionist present, they can help your loved one find a next step that seems approachable, such as attending one peer-facilitated support group—like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or SMART Recovery—or scheduling a visit with a provider they already see—such as a counselor or their primary care doctor—specifically to discuss substance use.

Plan Your Speech

Plan out your talking points in advance. Interventions can be an emotional time. Sometimes, the meeting can go off-topic. Some participants may try to point fingers by accusing others of “causing” the addiction. They might also express anger or hurt over the harm that the person’s addiction has caused. People participating in an intervention may also bring up old grievances.

This approach isn’t productive. Blaming, shaming, and making accusations can eliminate the possibility of achieving the desired positive outcomes. The person may feel attacked or disrespected. They might leave or refuse to accept help. A poorly planned intervention can alienate the person from their friends and family. The group must stay on-topic during the intervention.12

Speaking with an addiction specialist can help. Before staging an intervention, you can work with a specialist to discuss possible problems. A specialist often helps you prepare what you want to say, especially if you plan to make a formal impact statement. The addiction specialist can create a meeting itinerary to make sure everyone is on the same page. Some addiction specialists can attend the intervention or recommend a qualified interventionist to attend who can help defuse arguments and keep the conversation on topic.1

Gather Information About Recovery Programs

Before the intervention, do some research about local recovery programs. Gather brochures, flyers, and phone numbers.  Collect crisis hotline numbers and contact information for rehab intake coordinators. Information about local support groups and nonprofit agencies can also be helpful.

During the intervention, the team can offer this information as it feels appropriate. If your loved one feels ready, help them place a call during the intervention. As you plan your intervention, look for agencies and organizations that have a 24/7 phone line that allows people to seek guidance at any time, day or night.13

If the person isn’t ready to make a call, urge them to keep the information. Sometimes, people with a substance use disorder feel flustered, overwhelmed, vulnerable, or defensive during an intervention. They may shut down or disengage from the group. But later on, they might decide to make a call on their own.

What Happens During an Intervention?

All participants must know how to respond during the intervention. Emotions often run high, and interventions can turn into arguments. These actions will help ensure your intervention runs smoothly.

Remain Calm

An oppositional reaction from the subject of the intervention is common, once they realize the purpose of the meeting. The person coping with addiction may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or cornered. Sometimes, the person makes insulting comments. They may resort to personal attacks to deflect attention onto someone else.1

Everyone participating in the intervention must remain calm and composed. Friends and family who tend to become emotional may opt out of the intervention. Family members and friends participating in the intervention should control their emotions, even during an intense discussion.1

Remain Positive

During an intervention, the person with drug addiction may feel attacked. They may feel that the group has gathered to criticize or mock them. That’s why the group needs to offer consistent support.14

Resist the temptation to bring up old arguments. Avoid making new accusations or speculating on the person’s actions. People with substance use disorders sometimes do hurtful, harmful, or unethical things, such as stealing from a loved one or committing a crime. The group may feel hurt, disappointed, or wronged. But successful intervention depends on calm, unwavering support.14

Throughout the intervention:1

  • Assure the person that they are loved.
  • Explain that the group wants the best for them.
  • Acknowledge that addiction is a medical condition.
  • Recognize that people struggling with addiction may do things they later regret.
  • Reassure the person with addiction that help is available, and recovery is possible.

Focus on the positive aspects of recovery programs. Discuss the positive changes the person might make if they agree to seek treatment. Avoid rehashing past offenses or old arguments.1

Avoid Stigmatizing Language

Many people in our culture use hostile or insulting language to discuss substance use disorders. Remember that addiction is a mental disorder, not a character flaw. During the intervention, everyone should use respectful language.15

Research shows that people with substance use disorders often struggle with a deep sense of shame. Shame can lead people to hide their addiction or refuse treatment. People who blame themselves for their addiction may be more likely to relapse after treatment.15

People who can overcome shame during treatment may be more likely to remain in recovery. As you proceed with the intervention, assure your loved one that they need not feel ashamed. Seeking treatment isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Instead, it’s a sign of strength: the person is wise enough to accept help when they need it.16

Avoid Making Demands

Family members often end the intervention by asking the person with drug addiction to immediately check into rehab, which can be a mistake. Specific demands can leave the person feeling frightened and defensive. They may shut down or leave the room. Rather than making demands, urge the person to speak to a qualified addiction specialist. Specialists can walk them through various treatment options without the intense pressure your loved one may feel during the intervention.17

When Should You Consider an Intervention?

There isn’t a perfect time to stage an intervention. Participants must decide for themselves when an intervention is needed. Often, friends and family plan an intervention when they notice harmful levels of substance use. You may choose to have an intervention if the person’s substance use has led to:18

  • Hospitalization
  • Job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Legal troubles
  • Failing grades
  • Divorce
  • Inability to care for their children

If the person’s drug or alcohol use is a source of widespread concern, it may be time for an intervention. But avoid holding interventions when the person appears to be in crisis. If you think the person is in immediate danger, contact emergency services. Don’t attempt to provide urgent care on your own.

What Happens After the Intervention?

The outcome of interventions varies. Sometimes, the person accepts that they have an addiction. They may agree that they need help and decide to seek care. This decision can feel like a triumphant moment for the intervention team.

However, you should manage your expectations and remember that a positive outcome of the intervention isn’t a personal achievement or a guarantee of your loved one’s immediate and long-term sustained sobriety. Sometimes, patients agree to seek help in the heat of the moment. They may not follow through with their treatment program afterward. Relapses are common in recovery from substance use disorders. Many patients complete treatment but still struggle with frequent relapses.19

Remember that a “successful” intervention isn’t a miracle cure. It only represents the next step in recovery. Recovering from addiction can be a lifelong process. The person may need continued support and encouragement in the years ahead. The intervention team can help by acting as a cheerleader; many people struggling with addiction report that friends and family support helps them remain in recovery. After an intervention, your support is more vital than ever.20

What Happens If the Person Refuses Treatment?

Sometimes, interventions end with the person refusing to accept help. The person may become angry with the intervention team. They may refuse to seek treatment, now or ever. If this occurs, the intervention team must decide on their next steps.

You may choose to set hard boundaries with your loved one until they agree to seek treatment.  The family may withdraw financial support. They may refuse to allow the person to attend family events. In some cases, the family may even pursue legal action against the person with drug addiction. Research has shown that court-ordered treatment can be effective for some individuals. If the legal system compels a person to seek help, they may recover from their addiction. 21

This process can be deeply painful. Friends and family may need help from a therapist or support group. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous Group (Al-Anon) can support friends and family as they cope with their loved one’s addiction.

If at any time the situation during an intervention escalates to the point that you feel a physical fight may occur or your loved one may hurt themselves or someone else, leave and call emergency services if necessary, such as a mobile suicide prevention unit or 911. Do not try to deescalate a situation that begins to feel unsafe in any way on your own.

Call 800-926-9037 (Who Answers?) to speak to a treatment specialist about nearby rehab centers. Our specialists can answer your questions about addiction and explore available treatment options. We can help you find a rehab program in your area.

If you or someone you love is addicted, call our helpline toll-free at 800-926-9037 to speak with a caring treatment specialist that can help you get sober. (Who Answers?)

Resources

  1. Clark, C. D. (2012). Tough love: A brief cultural history of the addiction intervention. History of Psychology, 15(3), 233–246.
  2. (2017, April 13). Intervention – A Starting Point for Change. AIS.
  3. Jhanjee, S. (2014). Evidence based psychosocial interventions in substance use. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 36(2),
  4. Bartlett, R., Brown, L., Shattell, M., Wright, T., & Lewallen, L. (2013). Harm reduction: compassionate care of persons with addictions. Medsurg Nursing : Official Journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, 22(6), 349–358.
  5. Pickard, H. (2017). Responsibility without Blame for Addiction. Neuroethics, 10(1), 169–180.
  6. (2017, May 2). What is the Family Systemic Model? – AIS. AIS.
  7. Rapp, R. C., Xu, J., Carr, C. A., Lane, D. T., Wang, J., & Carlson, R. (2006). Treatment barriers identified by substance abusers assessed at a centralized intake unit. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 30(3), 227–235.
  8. American Psychological Association. (2017). An underappreciated intervention.
  9. Garrett, J., Landau, J., Shea, R., Stanton, M. D., Baciewicz, G., & Brinkman-Sull, D. (1998). The ARISE Intervention. Using family and network links to engage addicted persons in treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 15(4), 333–343.
  10. Loneck, B., Garrett, J. A., & Banks, S. M. (1996). A comparison of the Johnson Intervention with four other methods of referral to outpatient treatment. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 22(2), 233–246.
  11. (n.d.). Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Use Disorder Treatment.
  12. Maine Suicide Prevention Program. Crisis Help.
  13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations – A Research-Based Guide.
  14. Meehan, W., O’Connor, L. E., Berry, J. W., Weiss, J., Morrison, A., & Acampora, A. (1996). Guilt, shame, and depression in clients in recovery from addiction. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 28(2), 125–134.
  15. McGaffin, B. J., Lyons, G. C. B., & Deane, F. P. (2013). Self-forgiveness, shame, and guilt in recovery from drug and alcohol problems. Substance Abuse, 34(4), 396–404.
  16. Harvard Health. (2012, July 10). When a loved one has an addiction.
  17. National Institute on Drug Abuse. How to Recognize a Substance Use Disorder.
  18. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Treatment and Recovery.
  19. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What Helps People Stay in Treatment?
  20. National Institute on Drugs. (2018). Principles of Effective Treatment.
  21. Mayo Clinic. (2017). Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction.

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