Substance Abuse Interventions – How to

Last Updated: September 25, 2023

A basic definition of an “intervention” is an action taken to improve a situation. When it comes to substance abuse, however, that definition only scratches the surface. There is an entire science behind what goes into an intervention, what happens in an intervention, and what happens after an intervention. Substance abuse interventions can be – and often are – the first step that abusers and their families take to recovery and healing.

The Dynamics of an Intervention

The National Institute of Health explains that the goal of intervention in substance abuse treatment is to:

  • Dissuade the user from continuing his drug or alcohol habit
  • Prompt him to seriously consider the social and health consequences of continuing his habit
  • Encourage him to seek treatment (or, if applicable, return to treatment)
  • Remind him that he has a network of people who love and support him

In order to dissuade the user from continuing his habit,a professional interventionist will coach the friends and family members of the user on how they should share stories of the ways that the user’s drug or alcohol habit has negatively impacted their lives. This could be in the form of listing embarrassing incidents that were a result of the user being high or drunk, or by way of giving examples of how their quality of life has deteriorated since the substance abuse started. A common way of doing this is by having the participants in the intervention write out their grievances in the format of a letter to the patient; if, at the start of the intervention, the patient denies any wrongdoing or destructive behavior, the contents of the intervention letters are read out loud.

For this reason, it may be beneficial for the participants to rehearse what they intend on saying at the intervention. It gives the interventionist a chance to vet everybody’s contributions, as well as build preparedness for the emotional battle the user, and their friends and family, might possibly go through during the intervention.

Because a proper intervention is very methodical, the stories shared by the participants should not be off the cuff. Belligerent or confrontational condemnation of the abuser will do more harm than good. Instead, the interventionist will work with the intervention’s participants on how they can present their case in a way that is direct (so the user has no room to escape the reality of their abuse) and engaging (so the user is compelled to take positive action based on what he has heard).

Examining the consequences of a continued substance abuse habit is an important element in an intervention. The Mayo Clinic lists detailing the consequences of refusal as one of the goals of a substance abuse intervention. If the patient rejects the claim that he has an addiction, or denies any offer of treatment or help, the intervention’s participants should clearly state what punitive measures they will take until the patient changes his mind. This could mean evicting the patient from shared living space; cutting off financial support; breaking off contact, or any other measure to prove to the user that his destructive behavior will not be tolerated or accepted.

However, if the patient accepts the reality that the intervention presents to them, the next steps should be carefully mapped out as well. Part of the preparation for an intervention is that friends and family research a treatment facility that they feel would best help the patient’s addiction(s) (the interventionist can help with this search). At the intervention, they should inform the patient that such a facility exists, and that the patient being admitted to the facility is a condition of their continued support. An intervention can be emotionally draining, both for the patient and the participants. Showing that there is a realistic and logical path to recovery will go a long way in reassuring everyone’s concerns about the future. On the other hand, being empty-handed when it comes to plotting out the aftermath of the intervention can undo all the hard work it took to get to that point.

Furthermore, many patients try to dodge the spotlight of an intervention by claiming they will seek treatment later. The Huffington Post explains that an intervention is an ultimatum, and there is no concept of “later” – either the patient accepts the immediate treatment plan that their friends and family provide for him, or he will suffer the consequences that, as part of the intervention, were very clearly laid out.

Lastly, an intervention presents an opportunity for the addict’s friends and family to reiterate their love and support. The intervention is not an opportunity for resentful and bitter airings of dirty laundry. If recovery is to be successful – or even started – it needs the foundation of a support network of the people who are most invested in the patient’s well-being. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out that positive affirmation from friends and family encourages and motivates the patient to take personal investment in his own recovery.

When Should an Intervention Be Staged?

This last point is key in the timing of an intervention. Trying to convince a loved one to seek treatment after her drug or alcohol habit has completely destroyed lives and relationships is futile. On the other hand, friends and family members should contact a professional interventionist as soon as there is consensus that the patient’s behavior and habits are causing problems. Signs of a substance abuse problem usually include:

  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities that the patient used to enjoy
  • Withdrawing from social circles
  • Decline in academic or job performance
  • Unexplained and uncharacteristic behavior
  • Varying states of anxiety, agitation, depression, fatigue, or euphoria

When it comes to scheduling an intervention, sooner is better than later. The effects of addiction would not have taken full hold, and the patient will likely be less resistant to the idea of treatment and sobriety than if their perceptions were completely warped by a severe substance abuse addiction.

If a user accepts the ultimatum put forward during the intervention, her treatment should start immediately – perhaps that very day, if possible, and the following day at the very latest. This allows for no time for the addict to resume consumption of drugs or alcohol (no “one last time” or “one for the road”) and reinforces both the gravity of the situation, and that the consequences promised by the intervention participants would have been carried out with equal immediacy and effect.

Interventions and Success

For as difficult as interventions can be, they are successful. A study of 153 women for the Journal of Research on Adolescence suggested that interventions not only resulted in “decreasing drug use” but also “potentially increased resilience to partner abuse.” The findings were summarized in a news release from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, entitled “Early Interventions Can Decrease Drug Use in Young Women.”

Another study, this one published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that intervention in cases of drug abuse can keep patients in treatment programs for longer periods of time. The particular intervention in the study even “doubled the likelihood of abstinence” among certain patients.

Interventions and Popular Culture

From 2005 to 2009, A&E broadcast a documentary series entitled Intervention, which filmed 161 people suffering from various forms of addiction (substance abuse and otherwise) as they went through interventions facilitated by professional interventionists. Writing about the show, The Daily Beast calculated that Intervention’s success rate was 71 percent, which it called “astonishingly high [by any standard].” By putting equal focus on the family unit as well as the addict, writes the Beast, the show succeeds where “so many other treatment regimes have failed.”

While interventions should never be about being on television, the point that The Daily Beast makes about family is important. The emotional investment – and perhaps even more crucially, the determination – of the addict’s personal social circles can have a huge impact in the decision to accept that they have a substance abuse problem, and to seek treatment when they have to acknowledge the damage it has done to those circles.

The “determination” comes from those family members being resolute in their assertions – that if the addict does not embark on the treatment program they have selected, they will cut off ties, financial support, visitation right, etc. Many users are enabled by unwitting family members who are cajoled, conned, or guilted into providing the means and resources for the user to continue their substance abuse. As we have seen, the intervention reiterates the presence of consequences, and draws a very definite line in the sand when it comes to the relationship between the user and his friends and family. One of the trained interventionists on Intervention explains that somebody has to be paying something, putting up with something, ignoring something, or covering something up for the addiction to be enabled. Involving and coaching family members in an intervention rips the blinds off that cycle and puts both the addict and the family in a situation where the status quo cannot continue.

More Information About Interventions

An intervention can be a complicated, grueling process, but it can also be the start of a life turning around, leaving behind the trail of destruction and substance abuse for good. At Orlando Recovery Center we know that nothing about an intervention is easy, which is why we’re here to help you as much as we can. If you have questions about how to know if your loved one has a substance abuse problem, or if you would like to know about setting up an intervention, we have trained professionals who are standing by to answer your questions.

Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.