Staging an Intervention

Interventions can be a powerful tool to help someone with a substance use disorder. However, there must be careful planning involved. Otherwise, it can result in the individual feeling attacked and refusing help.
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An intervention is an attempt to help a loved one overcome addiction. In an intervention, people who care about the person with substance use disorder encourage him or her to seek help for alcohol, drug use, or another addiction. Staging an intervention is emotional and somewhat risky, but it might also be what convinces the person to seek the help he or she needs.

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It’s common for someone with a drug or alcohol problem to be in denial about the issue. Loved ones band together to confront the person and have a direct conversation about the negative effects of the person with substance use disorder’s behavior. The intervention creates a structured opportunity for that person to seek help before the problem worsens.

What is an Intervention?

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An intervention is a carefully planned event that includes the family and friends of a person with substance use disorder. It is usually done in consultation with a doctor or professional addictions counselor. It might also include an interventionist to direct the conversation and/or a member of the person with substance use disorder’s faith to provide support to those in attendance.

When interventions are carefully prepared and done with the guidance of a competent, trained specialist, loved ones are usually able to convince the person with substance use disorder that the only choice is to accept help.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Interventions are effective in dealing with a variety of issues. Types of interventions include confronting a person about:

  • Alcoholism
  • Prescription drug abuse
  • Illicit drug use
  • Compulsive eating
  • Compulsive gambling

What happens during an intervention?

The most common type of intervention is the direct method. In the direct method:

  • Loved ones gather together to confront the person with substance use disorder and ask that he or she accept treatment
  • They provide specific examples of the person with substance use disorder’s destructive behavior and the impact on the person’s loved ones
  • The person with substance use disorder receives an offer to attend a pre-arranged treatment plan with clear directions about what comes next and what the goals would be
  • Loved ones describe what they will do if the person with substance use disorder accepts or refuses treatment

How Do Interventions Work?

Though no two interventions are exactly alike, the general guidelines for conducting an intervention are almost always the same. Interventions include the following steps:

  1. Planning Once a loved one proposes an intervention, reach out to an addiction professional to create a plan for the intervention     
  2. Information gathering Research should be done into the nature and extent of the problem and what treatment options are available     
  3. Forming of the intervention team The person or persons planning the intervention reach out to those invited to attend the intervention and discuss with them what is to come. A rehearsal intervention might be helpful. Everyone should agree to keep the intervention details secret from the person with substance use disorder
  4. Determining specific consequences Decide what to do if the person with substance use disorder doesn’t accept help
  5. Writing notes to help with the discussion Each person will speak about how the person with substance use disorder’s behavior has affected him or her. It can help to have notes to read from to keep the conversation focused and make it easier to talk about difficult topics that are emotionally charged
  6. Having the intervention Invite the person with substance use disorder to the intervention without discussing the reason for attending. During the intervention, each person expresses his or her concerns and feelings. Then the participants give the person with substance use disorder a treatment option and ask him or her to accept it. Each person speaks about what he or she will or won’t do if treatment is accepted or denied.
  7. Following up A follow-up course of action is planned to help those involved and/or the person with substance use disorder move forward after the intervention.

There must be careful planning for an intervention to work. If there are no plans or those plans are poorly executed, it can result in the person with substance use disorder feeling attacked and refusing help.

There are no guarantees, but the better planned and executed an intervention is, the more likely it is to result in the outcome loved ones are hoping for.

Who Should Be a Part of the Intervention?

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People in attendance at an intervention include those who are important to the person with substance use disorder. It is usually four to six family members or friends the person loves, respects, or depends on. Part of planning an intervention includes deciding who should come. Though the list of attendees will vary from situation to situation, people who should not attend an intervention include anyone:

  • The person with substance use disorder dislikes
  • With unmanaged substance abuse or mental health issues of their own
  • Who used drugs or alcohol with the person with substance use disorder 
  • Who might not be able to stay on track and only discuss pre-arranged topics
  • Who might sabotage the intervention

If there is someone important in the person with substance use disorder’s life who cannot or should not attend the intervention, that person should write a letter about his or her feelings concerning the addiction. Review it in advance and read it to the person with substance use disorder during the intervention.

It is not necessary to have an addiction professional in attendance at the intervention, but many find that doing so is helpful. An addiction professional is especially helpful if the person with substance use disorder:

  • Has a co-occurring mental illness
  • Has a history of violence
  • Has talked about suicide or made a suicide attempt (with a clear intention or through risky, potentially life-threatening actions)
  • Is using several mood-altering drugs

Contact an addiction professional if there is any chance the person with substance use disorder will react violently to the intervention.

Tips for Holding an Intervention

Things can be done in advance, not to make the intervention any easier emotionally but to eliminate loose ends and allow immediate action if the person with substance use disorder accepts treatment. For example:

  • Discuss the best treatment options with an addiction professional and have a specific program in mind
  • Determine if treatment is covered by the person with substance use disorder’s insurance provider
  • Gather information about the admission process for the chosen program and what the first few steps of admittance will be
  • Make arrangements for travel and consider packing a suitcase for the person with substance use disorder

A successful intervention is not about a person with substance use disorder promising to get help soon. It is about immediate action based on discussions in the intervention. Do not give the person with substance use disorder time to think about accepting the treatment offer. Prepare in advance to get the person with substance use disorder into an evaluation immediately if he or she agrees to the plan.

Things to Avoid During an Intervention

As emotionally charged as an intervention might be, it is important to have a plan in place and know what to avoid when confronting a person with substance use disorder. For instance, interventions should not:

  • Occur in the spur of the moment
  • Be so elaborate that people can’t participate or understand what’s required of them
  • Be overrun by “organizers” or “leaders” – one point person always works best
  • Include a bitter attack on the person with substance use disorder – take action from a place of love

Intervention participants should research the issue in advance and do their best to understand the various aspects of the addiction or substance use issue. Everyone should agree in advance to stick to the plan and focus on the agreed-upon best outcome. No matter the response, participants should remain calm and keep the conversation on track.

What If the Intervention Doesn’t Work?

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Unfortunately, not all interventions have the outcome loved ones are hoping for. Even with intervention and discussion of serious consequences, an person with substance use disorder might still deny the problem or refuse help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to try a different type of intervention. An indirect method of intervention counsels family members to interact with the person with substance use disorder in a manner that is more conducive to healing. An indirect intervention allows family members to get the education needed to deal with the person with substance use disorder in the best way possible, even if he or she refuses treatment.

Another option is a forcible intervention. Addiction professionals conduct forcible interventions that involve the person with substance use disorder being committed against his or her will.

This doesn’t mean the intervention has failed though. One of the benefits of interventions is that they bring together those in the person with substance use disorder’s life and allow them to join together and agree to no longer enable destructive behavior. There is hope that in the future that might be enough to help the person with substance use disorder get the help he or she needs.

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Resources

“Intervention: Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction.” Mayo Clinic, 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/intervention/art-20047451.

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Updated on: September 23, 2020
Author
Addiction Group Staff
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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