Interventions & Techniques

Helping a loved one overcome an addiction

An intervention can motivate someone to seek help for alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders or any other type of addiction. Here we’ll explain when to hold one and how to make it successful. Sometimes a direct, heart-to-heart conversation can start the road to recovery. But when it comes to addiction, a more focused approach is often needed. You may need to join forces with others and take action through a formal intervention. People who struggle with addictive behaviors are often in denial about their situation or are unwilling to seek treatment. Often they don’t recognize the negative effects their behavior has on themselves and others. An intervention presents your loved one a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse.

What is an intervention?

An intervention is a process involving family and friends and sometimes colleagues, clergy members or others who care about a person struggling with addiction. During the intervention, these people gather together to confront the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment. The intervention:

  • Provides specific examples of destructive behaviors and their impact on the addicted person and loved ones
  • Offers a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals and guidelines
  • Spells out what each person will do if a loved one refuses to accept treatment

What types of interventions are there?

There are many different types of interventions. With shows like A&E’s Intervention, more people have at least a cursory understanding of the process. It typically goes something like this: an unwitting addict is lured to specific location where they’re surprised to find their friends and family, along with a therapist, waiting to confront his/her about their addiction. This is effective in some cases, but it doesn’t describe the best tactic for every single situation.

  • The Johnson Intervention Model: This is what most people think of when they hear the word “intervention.” This model is confrontational. The addict is called to a meeting at which time his friends and family confront him about his behavior and how his addiction is causing harm to himself and others. The participants are to offer their full support to the addict should he agree to go through treatment. However, there is also a threat made of what will happen if the addict refuses treatment. The strategy here is to pull the addict out of his self-denial and see directly what his addiction is doing to his loved ones. An interventionist oversees the process. While this method can work well for some addicts, it has the potential to cause severe problems. According to Psychology Today, confrontational models like the Johnson Model don’t always work, and the usage of shame and pressure could cause more harm than good, including relapse or forcing the addict to cease all contact with family.
  • Systemic Intervention Model: Confrontational approaches are not always the best option for interventions, especially with hostile or overly defensive addicts. This is a good choice in these cases. During meetings with a therapist, the entire family discusses how everyone contributes to the addict’s continued abuse of substances. Instead of forcing the addict to confront their denial that there is a problem, the focus is placed on how to encourage the person to cease the use of drugs or alcohol. Only behaviors and interactions that encourage positive abstinence are emphasized.
  • Motivational Interviewing: This intervention technique is focused much less on strategy than it is on thorough counseling that focuses on conversation with the addict. According to The Essential Handbook of Treatment and Prevention of Alcohol Problems the goal of this technique is to encourage the addict to make positive behavioral changes by engaging in conversation. The therapist aims to guide the addict by understanding his or her point of view, offering empathy and building trust on which to base goals for changing negative behavior like drug abuse. While this technique lacks the confrontational aspects of other intervention models, it can still provoke feelings of denial and resistance within the addict.
  • Field Model: The Field Model is a combination of the Johnson Model and the Invitational Model. It’s designed to be easily adaptable to the situation. So if the addict has the potential to be violent or the intervention must be put together hastily, this model is useful in mitigating negative responses. Its name is derived from the notion that it is applied “in the field” and allows the therapist to make decisions based on the given circumstances.
  • Invitational Model: The Invitational Model is fairly straightforward and lacks the element of surprise the Johnson Model imposes. The family and friends of the addict schedule a workshop or meeting with an interventionist. One person invites the addict to the workshop, providing full knowledge of what will occur at the meeting. It’s left up to the addict to decide to come or not. However, the meeting always occurs regardless of whether or not the addict agrees to go.

Therapeutic Techniques

While some addicts will need to be enrolled in an inpatient program to go through detoxification and receive around-the-clock monitoring, many treatment plans occur on an outpatient basis. Even those who start out in an inpatient program will eventually transfer over to an outpatient plan that focuses on behavioral modification and applying coping strategies to daily life. Beyond the intervention models described above, therapists use some specific strategies to help addicts understand the origins of their addiction, overcome obstacles and maintain positive coping mechanisms to prevent a relapse. Though the use of intervention models and therapy techniques have a positive effect on stopping drug abuse, it is estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of addicts will relapse at least once, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). A continued treatment program following the initial detoxification period is essential for preventing relapses and ensuring that the addict remains on the sober path. This typically involves individual counseling sessions, family therapy, group therapy, or some combination of the three.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a few techniques stand out:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. A form of treatment that helps addicts understand what situations are most likely to trigger addictive behavior and how to avoid these situations in the future.
  • Contingency Management. The use of positive reinforcement to give addicts incentives to avoid drug abuse.
  • Multidimensional family therapy. A treatment program that includes the entire family in the process of identifying the causes of drug abuse and triggers, and helps the family learn how to cope more effectively to decrease the likelihood of a relapse.

Finding a treatment program that offers interventions

Depending on the severity of your loved one’s behavior or condition, it may be appropriate to ask him or her to seek support from a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. A more severe problem may require admittance into a structured program or hospital. If a treatment program is necessary, it may help to make arrangements in advance for admittance. Do some research, keeping these considerations in mind:

  • Ask a trusted addiction specialist, doctor or mental health provider about the best treatment approach for your loved one and recommendations about programs.
  • Contact national organizations, online support groups or local clinics for treatment programs or advice.
  • Find out if insurance will cover the treatment program you’re considering.
  • Find out what steps are required for admission, such as an evaluation appointment, insurance pre-certification and whether there’s a waiting list.
  • Be wary of treatment centers promising quick fixes. Avoid programs that use uncommon methods or treatments that seem potentially harmful.
  • If the program requires travel, make arrangements ahead of time. Consider having a packed suitcase ready for your loved one.

How can you help ensure a successful intervention?

Keep in mind, your loved one’s problem involves intense emotions. The process of organizing the intervention and the intervention itself can cause conflict, anger and resentment even among family and friends who know a loved one needs their help. To help run a successful intervention:

  • Consult an intervention specialist. It’s possible to conduct an intervention without an intervention specialist, but having expert help is preferable. An intervention professional will take into account your loved one’s particular circumstances, suggest the best approach and help guide you in what type of treatment and follow-up plan is likely to work best.
  • Don’t hold an intervention on the spur of the moment. It can take several weeks to plan an effective intervention. However, don’t make it too elaborate, either, or it may be difficult to get everyone to follow through.
  • Plan the time of the intervention. Make sure you choose a date and time when the addicted person is least likely to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Do your homework. Research your loved one’s addiction or substance abuse issue so that you have a good understanding about what’s going on.
  • Appoint a single person to act as a liaison. Having one point of contact for all team members will help you communicate and stay on track.
  • Share information. Make sure each team member has the same information about your loved one’s addiction and the intervention so that everyone is on the same page. Hold meetings or conference calls to share updates.
  • Stage a rehearsal intervention. Here, you can decide who will speak when, sitting arrangements and other details so that there’s no fumbling during the real intervention with your loved one.
  • Anticipate your loved one’s objections. Have calm, rational responses prepared for each reason the addicted person may give to avoid treatment or responsibility for his or her behavior. Offer support to your loved one that makes it easier to engage in treatment, such as arranging child care or attending counseling sessions with him or her.
  • Avoid confrontation. Be honest, but don’t use the intervention as a forum for hostile attacks. Avoid name-calling and angry or accusing statements.
  • Stay on track during the intervention. Veering from the plan can quickly derail an intervention and has the potential to make the situation worse.
  • Ask for an immediate decision. Don’t give your loved one time to think about whether to accept the treatment offer, even if he or she asks for a few days to think it over. Doing so just allows your loved one to continue denying a problem, go into hiding or go on a dangerous binge. Be prepared to get your loved one into an evaluation to start the treatment immediately if he or she agrees to the plan.

What if your loved one refuses help despite an intervention?

Unfortunately, not all interventions are successful. In some cases, a loved one may refuse the treatment plan. The addicted person may erupt in anger or insist that he or she doesn’t need help or may be resentful and accuse you of betrayal or being a hypocrite. Emotionally prepare yourself for these situations while remaining hopeful for positive change. If your loved one doesn’t accept treatment, be prepared to follow through with the changes you presented. Oftentimes, children, partners, siblings and parents are subjected to abuse, violence, threats and emotional upheaval because of alcohol and drug problems. You don’t have control over an addicted person’s behavior. However, you do have the ability to remove yourself — and any children — from a destructive situation. Even if an intervention doesn’t work, you and others involved in your loved one’s life can make changes that may help. Ask other people involved to avoid enabling the destructive cycle of behavior and take active steps to encourage positive change.