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Do Interventions Actually Work? Getting Help for a Loved One

working with a professional, especially a trained addiction interventionist, can help you structure your own thoughts and feelings to be supportive and encouraging. Ultimately, this approach can encourage your loved one to seek the care they need.

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Drug or alcohol interventions make popular reality television fodder, but do they actually work?

Yes, an intervention can help your loved one get the treatment they need, but it is important to avoid extremely emotional situations as shown on TV.

Interventions: Are They Like Reality Television?

If you are a fan of reality television, you may know the concept of a drug or alcohol intervention from one of several popular shows. In these shows, the dramatic moments of the intervention are played up to help tell the story, so you may assume that an intervention is about loved ones crying and demanding change from someone who struggles with drugs or alcohol.

You may know someone who struggles with drugs or alcohol. And you might begin to wonder if staging your own intervention would be useful or too dramatic and hurtful.

The truth is that an intervention should not be like those portrayed on television. Although you can set up a large intervention with several friends and family, there are other types of interventions that might work just as well. This guide can help you understand drug or alcohol interventions, how they should be set up, and what you should avoid.

Do Interventions Actually Work?

Determining the success of an intervention isn’t easy. In fact, identifying success in addiction care as a whole can be difficult.

Researchers writing in the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy put it this way: “Peer reviewed studies on “success” and outcomes lack universal consensus for the American addiction treatment system, and are limited in their practical application.

However, professional interventionists typically define success as a conversation that prompts someone to accept treatment. By this metric, the Association of Intervention Specialists (AIS) says interventions work 80% to 90% of the time. Of those who don’t enter treatment immediately after the conversation, about half do so within a week or two, the AIS says.

Another form of intervention (ARISE) uses a graduated model that starts with coaching sessions and ends with a traditional intervention if the person doesn’t get care. In a Stage 1 National Institutes of Health study conducted in 2009, researchers found that ARISE had an 83% success rate (defined as prompting someone to get care).

In 2009, researchers published a study comparing the Johnson form of intervention with other types of referral conversations. They found that people who had gone through the Johnson Intervention were likely to both enter and complete treatment.

Types of Interventions

Although you may imagine one type of intervention, there are actually several approaches to an intervention that might work for your loved one. Here are some options:

  • Friends and family intervention: An intervention that gathers friends and family together is one of the most recognized interventions. However, it can also be one of the more complicated ones to structure.You need to make sure that everyone gathers to rehearse the intervention, knows what they will say, sticks to what they plan to say, and, most importantly, offers care and support for the person struggling with addiction. If the event becomes too fraught or emotional, the person you are trying to help might storm off, and the stress and shame could cause them to abuse drugs or alcohol more to feel better. Although it is an important type of intervention, it might not be the most effective for your loved one.Consider getting someone professional to lead the intervention. A therapist, physician, religious or community leader, or professional addiction interventionist can help.
  • Individual intervention: If you are concerned about your loved one’s behavior with drugs or alcohol, you should be able to speak up and show you are worried. Many people perform this type of intervention at some point, but they do it spontaneously, which might become confrontational.It is important to not make the intervention about you, although you can express that your loved one’s behavior worries you. Be sure to express that you care about them and offer some support like helping them find a rehabilitation program, driving them to doctors’ appointments, or similar.
  • Brief intervention: Unlike other types of interventions, this one comes directly from a medical professional like an alcohol and drug counselor, psychologist, social worker, physician, or nurse. This intervention might occur in a hospital after your loved one has overdosed, in a court as part of sentencing, in a vocational training program or work source, or even at a regular visit to their doctor or therapist.These brief interventions typically incorporate five basic steps:
    1. Introducing the health issue
    2. Screening, evaluating, and assessing
    3. Providing feedback
    4. Talking about change and goal-setting
    5. Summarizing and reaching closure, or an agreement

You might combine different elements of these types of interventions, depending on what you think might work best for your loved one.

What Does a Professional Interventionist Do?

You can stage an intervention yourself, but if you are intervening to help a loved one, you likely have some strong emotions that are difficult to manage. While you can practice the intervention so you can manage these emotions, having guidance to create the intervention, manage other people involved in the intervention, lead the intervention, or even conduct most of the intervention can help you a lot.

An interventionist can assist in several ways by:

  • Identify meaningful people in the life of someone struggling with substance abuse
  • Educate and guide each person making up the intervention team so they know how to help
  • Assist in planning the conversation
  • Moderate the discussion to ensure everyone stays on track
  • Provide transportation to treatment
  • Facilitate and provide aftercare for everyone on the intervention team regardless of the intervention’s outcome

Organizations like the Association of Intervention Specialists can help you find certified professionals in your area. Good questions to ask include the following:

  • What is your training?
  • What type of intervention do you use?
  • How many interventions have you held?
  • What is your success rate?
  • How do you define success?
  • What services do you offer before, during, and after the intervention?
  • How much does this cost?

An interventionist can take the pressure off friends and family. A professional will help you plan, deal with complex topics, and handle your discussion with grace. While any intervention can be stressful, an interventionist could make things easier.

What if Your Loved One Refuses Treatment?

Do interventions work? In many cases, people who move through these conversations admit that a problem exists, and they agree to get help. However, some talks aren’t as successful. The following strategies may help:

Plan Another Intervention

If your first attempt didn’t work, regroup and try again. A new strategy or approach could help the person see the need for change.

For example, if you held an intervention without the assistance of a professional, the next one might include an interventionist. By adding an expert to your team, you could be more effective when you meet next time.

If you held an intervention with a professional, consider asking the person to take an interim step toward treatment during your next conversation. For example, maybe the person would be willing to go with you to a support group meeting or to visit a doctor.

Stick to Your Consequences

Many forms of addiction intervention involve boundary setting. For example, you may have told the person you wouldn’t allow them to see your children while they’re intoxicated. Or you may have told them you wouldn’t clean them up when they came home drunk. After your intervention, enforce those boundaries.

Your goal isn’t to punish the person. Instead, you’re making the consequences of untreated addiction a little more significant for the person you love. Those boundaries could be just what the person needs to stop using for good.

Consider Treatment

While the person you love may not agree to care, you could make the opposite choice. Consider working with a therapist to help you set and maintain healthy boundaries while living with someone with addiction. 

You might also benefit from enrolling in a support group for people living with addiction. The independent work you do could help you live a healthier life even if the other person won’t get help.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated May 7, 2024
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  2. Drug and Alcohol Interventions: Do They Work? (August 2014). Psychology Today.
  3. How Effective is Drug Addiction Treatment? (January 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
  4. Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happens in the Best of Families. (September 2012). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  5. Chapter Two – Brief Interventions in Substance Abuse Treatment. (1999). Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series No. 34, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  6. Learn About Intervention. Association of Intervention (AIS).
  7. Assessing Success: A Commentary on the Necessity of Outcomes Measures. (May 2015). Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy.
  8. Intervention Success Rate. Association of Intervention Specialists.
  9. Outcomes with the ARISE Approach to Engaging Reluctant Drug- and Alcohol-Dependent Individuals in Treatment. (August 2009). The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
  10. A Comparison of the Johnson Intervention with Four Other Methods of Referral to Outpatient Treatment. (July 2009). The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
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