Staging an intervention can be an incredibly difficult and challenging experience for a group of people concerned that their loved one has a substance abuse problem.
As explained by the Mayo Clinic, an intervention is a carefully planned and executed attempt to convince a person who is addicted to chemical substances or alcohol to seek professional help for their problem. An intervention is carried out by people who have been affected by the person’s substance abuse or compulsive behavior.
At an intervention, these people will present the person with a clear, exact, and tangible opportunity to make positive changes in their life and behavior. This usually entails getting treatment and rehabilitation, discontinuing the undesired behavior, and making a long-term commitment to refocus on their friends and family.
An essential and necessary component of the intervention is that the assembled concerned people have to make it very clear to the subject of the intervention that if they refuse to accept help and insist on continuing their destructive behavior, there will be consequences.
These consequences can entail:
The friends and family members conducting the intervention can offer to reestablish contact and reinstate a preferable status quo if their loved one changes their behavior. But until that action is taken, it is very possible for the intervention to end with the person being on their own.
Naturally, interventions are fraught with tension and emotion. For this reason, they should be carried out with the help and guidance of a professional interventionist. Professional interventionists have training in addiction and family psychology, so they are aware of how substance abuse changes behavior and what this does to a family unit. Some intervention specialists are in recovery themselves, so they have experienced the desperation of trying to hold onto their family life and substance abuse at the same time.
This insight is invaluable, and a professional interventionist will work with a family for weeks before the actual intervention. Without it, interventions run the risk of becoming angry shouting matches, where bridges are irrevocably burned, and no positive outcomes are achieved. To that point, unmoderated interventions can become “dangerous and counterproductive” for everyone involved, cautions Psych Central.
How many people should be part of the intervention? According to The Huffington Post, the ideal number is between three to six family members and/or close friends. This is a good number of people to present cases of how the person’s substance abuse or compulsive behavior has been harmful or destructive, but not so many people as to be overwhelming.
This number also allows the professional interventionist to work with each member and with the group as a whole. The key behind an effective intervention is control, and that comes both from having the services of an intervention specialist and the right number of people present.
The next piece of most interventions is that the person must not suspect it is coming. Being caught off-guard, without time to think of excuses or how to dodge responsibility for their behavior, forces the person to confront the reality of their substance abuse.
It might be difficult for friends and family members to keep the person in the dark about the intervention planning, but this can be vital to the process having its desired effect in most types of interventions.
Prepare realistic next steps for the person. An intervention specialist will help friends and family members gather information about an appropriate treatment facility that they can show to the person during the intervention.
Immediately presenting a path forward will better encourage the person to take this opportunity seriously and make a genuine commitment to treatment. Being empty-handed at the intervention presents too much ambiguity for the person to agree to treatment in the heat of the moment but back out later.
Similarly, friends and family members must be ready to explain how they will enforce consequences on the person if they refuse to go along with the intervention. This may entail describing how they will cut ties, stop financial support, initiate divorce proceedings, or otherwise carry out their ultimatums. These steps must also be discussed and rehearsed with the intervention specialist before the intervention itself.
In order for an intervention to be effectively staged, it is very important that loved ones do not wait too long to conduct it. There is the temptation to wait until “rock bottom,” which The Cut calls a “tragic” and “pseudoscientific myth.” Instead, as Healthline says, it is best to do the intervention as soon as the problems start, before any serious damage is done.
When is the ideal time to do an intervention? The moment that family members and trusted friends agree that the person is psychologically dependent on a chemical substance or that psychological dependence is imminent unless drastic action is taken. The sooner the intervention is staged, the less emotional and behavioral damage will be suffered by everyone involved. This also means that professional treatment will be simplified since the effects of substance abuse will not have been in place for a long time.
In the long term, the sooner an effective intervention is scheduled, the better the chances of arresting most of the problems before they spiral out of control. This bodes well not just for the individual struggling with addiction, but for everyone who is affected by their substance abuse.
An intervention can be a complicated, involved, and an intensive process. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration laid out plans that friends and family member should keep in mind when confronting a loved one about substance abuse.
A key mechanic of a successful intervention is for everyone who is participating to write down how the person has hurt them. This is usually done in the form of a letter, which friends and family members will read out loud at the intervention. The order of readings should be previously decided on with the participants and the intervention specialist.
Psychology Today advises that friends and family members “be as specific as possible,” listing exact dates and places when their loved one’s substance abuse caused harm or embarrassment while showing understanding for any stress or life difficulty that might have led to the development of the addiction.
Again, it is key that the letters come from a place of love and wanting the best for the person. A professional interventionist has the necessary training to coach that sentiment from loved ones. They will also be the judge of when enough is enough. Pushing the subject of the intervention into a place of despair will likely frustrate the entire process instead of compelling them to change their ways.
A significant way the intervention specialist can help the participants prepare for the intervention is to conduct role-playing exercises during the preparation stage of the process. The specialist can take on the role of both subject and participant, giving friends and family members an idea of what to expect and what to do when the intervention takes place.
This is crucial if there are concerns that the person might react violently or unhelpfully during the intervention. Many professional interventionists are recovering substance users themselves, and they combine this insight with formal training to become Certified Addiction Specialists, Certified Addiction Counselors, or Certified Addiction Professionals. This gives them a keen intuition into how people are likely to respond to challenges about their dependence on alcohol or drugs.
Professionals also know what emotional triggers to simulate hitting, which comes from being trained in family therapy. This will help to coach the participants to remain on point and topic, even in the face of anger, recriminations, and accusations.
The purpose of an intervention is to deliver an ultimatum, says The Huffington Post; and when dealing with the complexities of substance abuse, that ultimatum can put a family’s unity at stake. This requires the family to draw some very clear lines in the sand. An inability or unwillingness to stand by those lines, due to what CNN calls “misguided love,” can weaken an intervention.
Ready to get Help?
Talk to a treatment expert
When done properly, an intervention can be life-changing. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence writes that over 90 percent of people who go through an effective intervention make a commitment to seek treatment. A large part of that commitment is due to the services of an intervention specialist and the family having a clear plan for both the individual and the family unit on the whole.
The point is also made in research published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal, which found that study participants who went through an intervention reduced their drug use by 67.7 percent six months after starting treatment.
Staging an intervention is not easy, but working with a professional interventionist and seeing the process through to the end can be what helps a loved one make the decision to seek treatment for a substance abuse problem.
(July 2017) Intervention: Help A Loved One Overcome Addiction. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/intervention/art-20047451
(July 2018) 7 Common Misconceptions About Addiction Interventions. Psych Central. Retrieved April 2019 from https://psychcentral.com/blog/7-common-misconceptions-about-addiction-interventions/
(April 2013) 8 Steps to Intervention: What to Do When Your Child Is Using Drugs. The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/my-child-is-using-drugs-8_b_3148252
(May 2016) The Tragic, Pseudoscientific Practice of Forcing Addicts to “Hit Rock Bottom.” The Cut. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.thecut.com/2016/05/the-tragic-pseudoscientific-practice-of-forcing-addicts-to-hit-rock-bottom.html
(June 2016) Staging an Intervention for an Alcoholic. Healthline. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-addiction-intervention
(1999) Chapter 2—Brief Interventions in Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64942/
(August 2014) Drug and Alcohol Interventions: Do They Work? Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/when-your-adult-child-breaks-your-heart/201408/drug-and-alcohol-interventions-do-they-work
(April 2019) Addiction Treatment Should Include Family Therapy. Verywell Mind. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.verywellmind.com/addiction-treatment-should-include-family-therapy-67293
(July 2009) Intervening Against An Adult's Will Is Complicated, Painful. CNN. Retrieved April 2019 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/07/10/drug.intervention.jackson/index.html?_s=PM:HEALTH
(January 2009) Screening, Brief Interventions, Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) for Illicit Drug and Alcohol Use at Multiple Healthcare Sites: Comparison at Intake And 6 Months Later. Drug and Alcohol Dependence Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18929451