Key takeaways:

  • It’s best for an intervention to be directed by a professional who will act as a mediator and also educate the person’s loved ones in the best way to convey what they are feeling
  • Intervention should present a safe space for the user to estimate the damage they are causing themselves and others and for loved ones to support each other and the person suffering from addiction
  • Even if a professional interventionist is on hand to guide the process, there is no guarantee that the addicted individual will seek help after the intervention process

An intervention is when loved ones confront someone with an addiction, urging them to get treatment. Many interventions are only unsuccessful, especially when many people ‘gang up’ on a person with addiction in ways that make them feel attacked or defensive. Below are some strategies for approaching a person with addiction in ways more likely to be helpful.

What is an intervention?

An intervention is when family, friends, co-workers, and other loved ones directly confront someone they care about that is facing a problem with drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors. It’s best for an intervention to be directed by a professional who will act as a mediator and also educate the person’s loved ones in the best way to convey what they are feeling. The goals of an intervention are to confront a person with an addiction or other problem, help them overcome denial of the problem, and to get them to agree to get professional treatment. [1]

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How does an intervention work?

Interventions aim to use a kind of peer pressure to leverage influence and persuade a person to stop a behavior and enter treatment. Unfortunately, many people believe that interventions like those seen on reality TV are effective when they can actually do more harm than good. When people feel attacked, they tend to become defensive and stop listening to what others are saying. 

Because most people with an addiction are highly defensive (and may also be in denial about the problem), interventions can be ineffective at reaching a person and convincing them to get help. Some of the risks and harms of intervention include: [1]

  • Pushing a person away

  • Having them shut down

  • Damaging the relationship

  • Creating more triggers and urges to use

Intervention - tips and guidelines

Interventions are sometimes the last resort effort of a loved one to reach out and help someone who is struggling with an addiction. Intervention should present a safe space for the user to estimate the damage they are causing themselves and others and for loved ones to support each other and the person suffering from addiction. 

A successful intervention is usually one which: [1]

  • Make sure the timing and setting are right (i.e. don’t do an intervention at their work, when they are likely to be high or intoxicated, or on a holiday or birthday, etc.)

  • Sends the message that people love, care about, and are concerned for the person

  • Provide help and encouragement to the person in need

  • Do not become ‘blame sessions’ where everyone says what the person has done wrong or ways they’ve messed up in the past

  • Allow the person with the addiction-free choice and the ability to speak and share their perspective throughout the intervention

  • Do not make the person feel ganged up on or attacked by others

  • Do not ‘leverage’ the relationship or involve threats to cut the person off completely if they don’t comply with an ultimatum or demand

  • Be specific when expressing concerns, giving examples of times when the person has acted in ways that put them at risk

  • Don’t engage in debates, arguments, or unproductive conversations about whether the person actually has a problem

  • Know when to end the conversation (i.e. when it stops being helpful and productive)

  • Make recommendations about what the person could do to get help or treatment and express your willingness to support their efforts

  • Set boundaries if they aren’t willing to get treatment without totally cutting them off (i.e. say “I’m not willing to lend you any more money unless...” or “I can’t let you around the kids if...”)

  • Leave the door open for them to change their mind, talk about it later, or circle back to the conversation (i.e. after they’ve had time to think and process through what’s been said)

Can an addiction specialist help?

The best way of ensuring that an intervention is successful and has the desired outcome is to speak to an addiction professional first. This can be an alcohol and addiction counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or professional interventionist. The drug and alcohol professional will be able to offer more in-depth information about substance abuse, take into account the surrounding information and background of the person suffering from addiction, suggest best approaches, and provide guidance for what types of help and follow-up treatment will be best suited to the individual. 

It is always advised that an addiction professional be present through all stages of an intervention, though it may not always be possible. Interventions can take place without an addiction professional, but without their coordination and guidance, the intervention is less likely to work.

Can intervention be successful?

There are times when interventions are successful. There is not a lot of data on the actual success rate of interventions in convincing people to stop using drugs and alcohol and get treatment. This makes it hard to gauge the effectiveness of interventions. [1]

Sometimes, a person will seek help after an intervention, even though they may be defensive or resistant in the moment. This is why it’s important to end the conversation on good terms, instead of cutting them off totally.

Can intervention fail?

Even if a professional interventionist is on hand to guide the process, there is no guarantee that the addicted individual will seek help after the intervention process. This does not mean that an intervention shouldn’t be staged, especially if there are urgent substance use issues that cause you to be concerned for the person’s life or health.

Where do you begin?

An intervention may not be the right course of action for all families or for all circumstances. However, if you are concerned about a person's substance abuse and want to get help, contact a treatment center for advice or search for an addiction professional, treatment provider, or interventionist in your area to see what treatment options or intervention service is available. Psychology Today offers resources to a wide range of intervention specialists across the country.