Addiction Intervention Effectiveness

Stepping in to Save a Life

By Hugh C. McBride

The scenario makes for high drama on the television screen: An unsuspecting individual in the throes of an addiction finds himself confronted by family and friends, all of whom let him know how loved he is – but how disappointed they are in his recent behavior. Denials are made, recriminations are exchanged, and threats are issued before the session ends in a tearful denouement and a promise to finally get some help.

After a scene or two of the addicted individual struggling through rehabilitation, we cut to a montage of post-rehab happiness and successes, then fade to credits.

After-school specials and movies of the week have riffed on versions of the above for decades. But do interventions like this ever actually happen? And, more importantly, can they succeed?

The Origins of The Idea

The concept of an intervention like the one described above and popularized through films and television began in an Episcopal church in Minnesota in the early 1960s. Rev. Vernon  Johnson, himself a recovering alcoholic, brought a group of fellow churchgoers together in 1962 to evaluate ways to persuade alcoholics to accept help before the disease destroyed their lives.

After concluding that one of the most prominent obstacles faced by alcoholics was their inability to recognize the effects the disease was having on them and their loved ones, the church group designed an intervention process. Four years after the initial meeting, the Johnson Institute was formed for the purpose of spreading the word about the "Minnesota Model" of intervention and removing additional barriers to treatment.

As Kate Jackson wrote in the Jan. 2005 edition of Social Work Today, "Over time, various styles and models of interventions have grown from this basic premise, and these interventions have come to be viewed by some as an effective and loving way to give a leg up to those disinclined to help themselves." However, Jackson also noted that some believe the intervention concept to be "a well-intentioned but ultimately damaging intrusion."

Intervention Essentials

There is no "must-follow" series of steps or directions to differentiate between what does and does not constitute an intervention. As The Partnership for a Drug-Free America puts it, "the point of any intervention is to ask the person to take concrete steps to address the problem and lead them to the help they need."

In its simplest incarnation, an intervention can be little more than an informal discussion initiated by a person who is concerned about a friend's behavior. But the more common form involves a structured group conversation undertaken under the supervision of a counselor, therapist, or other appropriate professional.

Though an informal one-on-one intervention may be done simply to get the addicted individual to realize that a friend or family member is concerned, a formal group intervention is almost always undertaken with the purpose of convincing the person to get help immediately.

Most experts advise the following when planning a formal intervention:

  • Participants – Keep the intervention group to about four to six people who are close to the addicted individual. Everyone who participates should be an adult – this is one family gathering that should not include children.        
  • Guidance – An intervention can be a difficult, demanding, and emotional experience. Including a licensed professional in the process will help keep the discussion focused and productive, as well as provide for an impartial mediator to help resolve any disputes.
  • Preparation – All participants (except, of course, the addicted individual) should meet before the intervention to discuss the purpose of the gathering, to coordinate their activities, and to prepare for anticipated resistance from the person with whom they will be intervening. If necessary, the participants should meet multiple times to rehearse expected scenarios and discuss the process until all parties are confident of their roles.
  • Consequences – In addition to preparing for resistance from the subject of the intervention, interveners must decide what consequences they will establish – and can enforce – if the addicted individual fails to agree to enter treatment. Consequences can include ending a personal relationship, filing legal papers, or dissolving a professional partnership.
  • Treatment – Since the goal of the intervention is to get the addicted individual into immediate treatment, participants must plan all the steps necessary to make this happen. For example, they need to discuss intake and payment plans with the hospital or facility in advance of the intervention, have a bag packed with some of the person's clothes and personal items, and know who will transport the subject of the intervention to the facility.
Intervention Tips

An "Intervention Quick Guide" that is distributed by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America advises anyone who is participating in any level of intervention to keep the following in mind:

  • Conduct the intervention in a setting that is familiar to the addicted individual, such as her home or a friend's house.
  • Stay calm, but be prepared for anger, denial, and resentment. Many addicted individuals don't get help until they've experienced the severe pain that's commonly known as "hitting rock bottom." Because an intervention is designed to head off this degree of devastation, the person with whom you are intervening may not believe his problem is as bad as you are telling him it is.
  • Don't label the person. Telling someone that she is an alcoholic or addict can be counterproductive to your effort to remind her that you're on her side.
  • Talk in "I statements," and stick to what you know, not what you've heard. Your words will have much more meaning when they are specific and personal (for example, "It hurts me that I can't let you babysit my children anymore, but the last time I let you, you showed up drunk.")
  • Remain supportive and focus on the hopeful aspects of change. Though you will be telling your friend or family member some very difficult things about his behavior, don't let him lose sight of the fact that the purpose for this intervention is that you (and anyone else who is participating) believe he can get better.

When it comes to addiction, there are few aspects that can be described as "easy" – and staging an intervention is definitely a difficult undertaking. But when done right, interventions can literally be life-saving.

National Intervention Referrals, a network of intervention professionals, claims that more than 90 percent of interventions performed under the direction of licensed specialists result in the addicted individual agreeing to enter a treatment program or enlisting in some other form of rehabilitation. According to the NIR website, interventions succeed because "although drugs and alcohol have essentially taken over a person's life, it is still hard for the abuser to be confronted with his/her own behavior and know how it has affected others."

Ultimately, an intervention is an opportunity for an addicted individual to see how many people care about her, and how much support she has. As Leslie Korek, a private practice therapist, said in Social Work Today, "it's a way for family and friends to say, 'Listen, we care about you, and because we want you to get better, we're no longer willing to look the other way.'"