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What Is an Intervention?

An intervention is a planned conversation between someone with a substance use disorder or behavioral addiction and the community that loves that person. The goal of the talk is to encourage the person to understand the cost of the behavior and to accept help.

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Some interventions are successful and entice a person in need to get the help they’ve avoided for too long. An intervention can be the impetus that starts the person on the path to a healthier life in recovery.

But interventions can also be stressful, risky, and emotionally damaging. Some families never hold the conversations they planned as they think it won’t be productive.

These tips and best practices can help you get started if you’re planning an intervention. But know there are alternative techniques that could also get the person you love treated, and those options don’t involve confrontation at all. 

What Is an Intervention?

One definition for intervention from Merriam-Webster reads this way: “The act of interfering with the outcome or course especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm or improve functioning).” Per this definition, an intervention could be a simple conversation between a doctor and a patient about substance abuse.

However, Merriam-Webster also defines intervention this way: “An occurrence in which a person with a problem (such as a drug addiction) is confronted by a group (as of friends or family members) whose purpose is to compel the person to acknowledge and deal with the problem.” This is the type of intervention we’re discussing here.

The goal of a traditional intervention is to alter the course of a person’s addiction by asking them to enter treatment and get help.

A typical intervention process involves gathering information, asking people to attend, and talking to the person about the addiction and its consequences. At the end of a successful intervention, the person agrees to enter a treatment program.

3 Types of Interventions 

All addiction interventions are conversations. But how the talk is structured, who comes to the planning sessions, and who is in charge can set methods apart.

These are the three common types of interventions families choose from: 

1. The Johnson Model 

A surprise conversation that includes confrontation characterizes the Johnson Model. If you’ve ever seen an intervention in a movie or on television, it’s probably been Johnson-influenced. These are often dramatic discussions.

The Johnson Model involves the following:

  • Sourcing: Family members, friends, and sometimes even bosses or coworkers are encouraged to attend. 
  • Planning: The team meets secretly, away from the person with the addiction, to practice and prepare. They plan what they will say and the order in which they will speak.
  • Discussing: The person is surprised by the event. Each participant talks about how much they love the person and how the substance abuse has had negative effects.
  • Consequences: The person is encouraged to go to treatment at the end of the conversation or face some kind of loss, such as reduced ability to see children, withdrawal of financial support, or forced removal from the household.

Families that hire a professional have two planning sessions, and the professional works as the emcee of the talk.

In a groundbreaking effectiveness study published in 1996, researchers said people who went through a Johnson intervention were more likely to enter treatment programs than those going through any other form of intervention. But many families never held their talks, even though they planned them. 

2. Family Systemic Model

If the Johnson Model involves confrontation, the Systemic Family Model is more of a conversation. The target of the talk is involved in every step of this process.

A Family Systemic intervention involves the following:

  • Hiring: The family uses a therapist or interventionist for this type of discussion, and the whole family meets with that professional. 
  • Discussion: Everyone in the room, including the target of the talk, can speak openly. 
  • Ongoing talks: There is no time limit involved, and the person isn’t forced to enter treatment as soon as one meeting ends. The family talks as often as needed. 
  • Commitment: If the person does agree to enter treatment, the whole family outlines how they will help and keep going to therapy to support their loved one.

Since the entire family is involved in this intervention, and the work can last for weeks, some people change even if the person never enters treatment. The work you do here could keep you from enabling an addiction or taking it personally, which could help you live more peacefully with someone in need. 

In 1998, the National Institutes of Health conducted a study of one form of family addiction intervention. They found that this model was successful at helping people into treatment 83% of the time.

3. Field Model

The Johnson Model serves as the foundation for this type of intervention, but the Field Model is run by a professional with in-depth training in conflict resolution and crisis care. If the person grows upset or dangerous during the discussion, the interventionist or counselor steps in and helps to deescalate the situation. 

The Association of Intervention Specialists says interventions with a professional work 80% to 90% of the time. Of those who don’t engage in treatment on the day of the intervention, about half do so within a week or two.

What to Do at Each Stage of an Intervention

An intervention is an important conversation between someone with an addiction and a family who wants to help. While the process is deeply influenced by the type of intervention you choose, the following steps apply to most conversations like this.

Take these steps to prepare for an intervention:

  • Choose your intervention type.
  • Hire a facilitator (if needed) to help you hold the conversation.
  • Select a time for the intervention during which the person is likely to be sober.
  • Find a quiet, private place to hold the talk.
  • Determine who will come to the intervention.
  • Ask each participant to write a letter to the person with the addiction.
  • Rehearse reading letters and determine who will speak first.
  • Invite the person to attend the conversation.

Take these steps during the intervention:

  • Tell the person why you have gathered and what you hope to accomplish.
  • Ask the person to listen carefully to the letters.
  • Read the letters in the order you’ve identified.
  • Ask the person to enroll in treatment.

Take these steps after the intervention:

  • If the person agrees to enter treatment, transport them to the facility immediately.
  • If the person does not agree to treatment, ask them to visit a doctor or go to a support group meeting with you again.
  • If the person won’t agree to anything like this, plan the next conversation.

How Do Interventions Work?

The person’s addiction, habits, and behaviors are the focus of any intervention conversation. But everyone present also ensures that the person feels loved and supported.

People typically give short, specific examples of how the addiction has changed their relationship with the person. They might talk about the following:

  • Missed appointments 
  • Episodes of unacceptable behavior 
  • Financial losses
  • Legal involvement

They might also talk about how things worked before the person started using drugs or engaging in dangerous behavior. Sharing happy memories can sometimes help the person see what has been lost.

Family members or counselors might also discuss how treatment works, what it means, and why it’s helpful. Some people with substance abuse issues or behavioral addictions may have no idea what treatment is like, and this part of the talk could give them the hope they need. 

Do Interventions Work?

It’s very difficult to measure the effectiveness of an intervention. Addictions are complex diseases that are characterized by relapse.

Is an intervention successful if someone goes into treatment? Or is it only successful if they stay in treatment?

Interventions do contain an element of pressure. Some types of conversations, such as the Johnson Model, include consequences if people will not go to treatment.

Researchers say that treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to work. People who move into treatment due to pressure can succeed there.

But interventions can cause a rift between people in need and their families. Some people with addictions aren’t ready to face their issues, and pushing them too hard can mean losing them. 

Who Is a Good Intervention Candidate?

Not everyone with a chemical or behavioral addiction is the right target for an intervention.

People use interventions to address the following issues:

  • Alcohol use disorders
  • Compulsive gambling 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Illegal drug abuse 
  • Prescription drug abuse

People with strong family connections, a willingness to listen, and an interest in getting better are the best people to move through an intervention.

Interventions aren’t a good idea for people with a history of violence, a significant amount of denial, or an unwillingness to change. Other approaches might work better for these individuals. If you’re unsure how to proceed, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist or addiction treatment professional.

How to Start an Intervention

If you choose to stage an intervention, planning is critical. This isn’t the type of talk you’ll want to ad-lib. These tips may help:

1. Research Treatment Options 

Treatment is the goal of an intervention. If the person agrees to enter a program, you must be ready with options they can use right now. Before you start the conversation, find out where you’d like the person to go for care.

Use a tool like this to help you find a treatment program. You could also contact your insurance company to find out which option is covered by your plan. 

2. Connect With an Intervention Expert

Let a professional guide this important conversation. This person could explain how treatment works, and this person could also help to ease uncomfortable situations.

Some treatment centers have connections with interventionists that can help. Some therapists also work as intervention experts. 

3. Choose a Quiet Location

Don’t have this discussion in the middle of a loud and busy room. Protect the person’s privacy by having it in a discreet location. Choose a spot with no distractions. 

4. Accept All Outcomes

People usually move through a series of steps before making a major change. The first step involves even thinking about changing. The last involves acting on the idea. Some people move through these steps very quickly, while others need more time.

At the end of your intervention, your loved one may move into treatment. If not, remember that you can try this again. 

5. Take Care of You

As you prepare for and hold an intervention, you’re thinking exclusively of the person with the behaviors you want to change. Don’t forget that you are important too. Rest, stay hydrated, exercise, and take care of yourself. 

Intervention Alternatives

What if you decide if an intervention isn’t right for you? This isn’t an opportunity to give up on the person you love.

These two techniques allow you to confront the problem without using an intervention:


Think of a CRAFT program as an opportunity to change how you interact with someone with an addiction. Your changes could entice the person to change too.

A CRAFT program encourages families to learn how to do the following:

  • Care for themselves 
  • Understand the triggers that lead to drug use 
  • Reward someone for not using 
  • Use positive communication to improve interactions
  • Entice someone to get treatment
  • Spot signs that lead to violence

In 1986, researchers recruited 12 women with an alcoholic loved one and randomly assigned them to use either CRAFT or a traditional intervention. The American Psychological Association says this about the data: “Results indicated that CRAFT was considerably more successful in getting the persons with substance abuse into treatment and reducing their alcohol consumption in comparison to the Al-Anon group.”

Motivational Interviewing

Sometimes, doctors can discuss conditions better than families ever can. Motivational Interviewing involves a discussion between a person with an addiction and a therapist who wants that person to understand the consequences of the behavior.

During a Motivational Interviewing session, the counselor will ask the person to talk about current behaviors and hopes for the future. Careful listening and expressed empathy may help the person see that their choices will impede their ability to meet their goals.

At least 32 studies have shown that this method can help people control their behavior. Best of all, this allows you to stay out of the role of confronter and aggressor. You may need to encourage the person to go to a counseling session, but once it starts, you stay out. 

You Can Do This

For someone with an addiction, a conversation could be just the start of a happier future. You could be the help the person needs.

Make your choice carefully and believe in yourself. You can make your family better.

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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. A Comparison of the Johnson Intervention With Four Other Methods of Referral to Outpatient Treatment. (May 1996). American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
  3. What Is the Family Systemic Model? (May 2017). Association of Intervention Specialists.
  4. Principles of Effective Treatment. (January 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. Mental Health and Substance Abuse. (May 2022).
  6. The Stages of Change Model and Motivational Interviewing. (September 2012). Australian Family Physician.
  7. An Underappreciated Intervention. (December 2017). American Psychological Association.
  8. Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT). (2011). American Psychological Association.
  9. Evidence-Based Psychosocial Interventions in Substance Use. (April 2014). Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.
  10. Intervention. Merriam-Webster.
  11. 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.
  12. Intervention Success Rate. Association of Intervention Specialists.
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