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Staging an Intervention

We often think about substance abuse and addiction as a fundamentally individual problem – a belief that has been codified by decades of media, books, and television that focuses fundamentally on the experience of the person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. However, this disease ripples out and affects people and relationships far beyond the one engaging with substance abuse.

On one hand, witnessing a friend, family member, or other loved one get knocked down by this mental illness can be destabilizing, heartbreaking, and simply exhausting. Financial and interpersonal issues may manifest, family dynamics can take a hit and we may witness new extremes to ourselves. It’s turbulent and confusing.

However, the interconnected nature of addiction – a mental illness that can truly affect everyone around – also gives us one of our key tools in convincing a loved one to seek treatment. Successful interventions for addiction work through compassion and communication, they give us structured, safe space to articulate evidence, pain, and care to the person in our lives that may need to hear it most.

Step One to Sobriety

Intervention: Step One to Sobriety

In the substance abuse context, intervention refers to a planned event wherein a small group of concerned and/or affected family and friends expresses concern and care for their loved one with addiction by:

  1. Articulating how the addiction has affected their lives through personal accounts
  2. Evidencing the consequences that they’ve witnessed addiction bringing into their loved one’s life (financial, social, emotional, mental health, etc.)
  3. Present therapeutic options and encourage an effort to seek addiction treatment

Understanding Confrontation

To a certain extent, an intervention is confrontational in nature – in the sense that you are confronting the addicted person with what is likely to be a difficult-to-hear conversation about what is essentially destructive behavior.

However, a successful addiction intervention is not a fight or an outburst. It is a mediated, carefully planned process that is structured in a way that keeps the conversation from veering into emotionally charged, uncontrolled territory.

The objective is not to gang up on the addicted person, and the addiction intervention team typically only involves trusted family and friends who have either witnessed or experienced the negative consequences of addiction in their loved one’s life. Before staging an intervention, this team meets in advance and plans their conversation, often with the help of a specialist who is trained in facilitating these conversations on the subject of addiction.

Do I Need to Intervene?

If you’re wondering that already, then probably. Intervention can come in handy regardless of the stage or degree of the substance use disorder – don’t wait for a catastrophe before you get professional assistance. The worst consequences of this serious mental illness are preventable with appropriate treatment before the addicted person comes close to rock bottom.

Structured interventions are useful in situations where the person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction has not yet realized the extent of the consequences of their actions. Because people tend to frame their substance abuse as a “me problem,” this perspective may be necessary for the process of tipping the scales towards commitment and acceptance of treatment.

More than anything, intervention combats the denial that is inherent to most forms of alcohol or drug addiction. If the addicted person seems blind or unresponsive to the ways their use is affecting their friends and loved ones, then this process can do wonders in reframing the way they think about their behavior.

Before the Intervention

A successful intervention always begins with careful planning. Different forms of intervention will call for different types of prep work in advance. That said, some throughlines can help you approach this challenge in the most productive way possible.

The following is some generalized preparation that will improve the chances of staging an intervention that works:

Check In with Yourself

Negative emotions about your loved one’s alcohol or drug abuse are natural and can be driving factors in a successful intervention. However, intervening calls on us to find ways of vocalizing these feelings in ways that remain calm and commit to goals. Practicing a mindful meditation or trying to “thought dump” on paper can help us get started with labeling and defining what is likely a complex web of thoughts and fears.

Reach Out to Friends and Family

Most of the time, an intervention involves a team of trusted individuals with a common goal of encouraging the addicted person’s journey to treatment. Sensitively going over your concerns with others who you think may be affected can both help you with the action point above, while also practically allowing you to put out feelers for enlisting an intervention team.

Research the Addiction.

If you know what the substance of abuse being used is, try to access resources that detail how the drug works, how and when it tends to be used, what the reality of alcoholism and drug dependence or withdrawal may mean, and what treatment options may work best.

Research Treatment Options

What comes after an intervention is time-sensitive, so you’ll be building a post-intervention plan before you stage the conversation. Do some preliminary searching into drug rehab and addiction services that are accessible to your loved one. Depending on your situation, you may also want to research financial assistance options.

Ask an Expert

Intervention is a sensitive process, and mismanaging it brings some risk of causing the addicted person to double down or not accept treatment. An intervention specialist can guide you through this process and can be present as an invaluable mediator when the time comes to stage the intervention.

Approaches to Intervention

Approaches to Intervention

So how do we talk about it? Different communication approaches can be utilized when going about a family or classical intervention that have different merits depending on the people involved. Plan your approach in advance and as a group when preparing.


First, a disclaimer – confrontational communication styles are generally not recommended, as they can alienate the subject of the intervention. In popular media, confrontational approaches are sometimes dramatized or romanticized, so keep it in mind but remember it does not tend to work well.

When an intervention is confrontational, the intervening parties speak from a position of power over the addicted person, assert explicit demands regarding treatment and define hard consequences for the choice not to accept treatment. While the clear and resolute nature of this approach may seem to have advantages, confrontation can slip easily into shaming and blaming, and lead the individual to withdraw or rebel against the group asks.

Tough Love/Love First

Tough love interventions probably fit into most people’s imagination of what the process looks like. This approach will place more emphasis on the love and concern felt for the addicted person by the group members, but still presents accessing treatment as a group demand with consequences for dismissal.

While care is more central to tough love approaches, drug rehab is still posed as non-negotiable – or at least posed as an ultimatum wherein failure to access addiction treatment may result in hard consequences like the cutting off of financial support or personal engagement.

Going for “tough love” can successfully get a person into a treatment facility, but it is crucial to remember that a sustainable journey towards healing addiction requires reflective acceptance and commitment from the individual.

“Love first” interventions greatly resemble tough love approaches but put much greater emphasis on the care and compassion felt by group members towards the addicted person. The need for treatment is posed as a proposal, and there may be more dialogue in general, but the choice to avoid treatment is still understood to incite a pre-determined “backup plan” of consequences.

Facts Only

Some people don’t want to get emotions involved at all when going about the intervention process and prefer to focus only on communicating the facts. The most common facts-only model of intervention is the Johnson Model.

In the Johnson Model of Intervention, no member of the team should ever express blame or anger towards the person on the receiving end. It is okay to articulate concern and care as realities or “facts,” before detailing dry accounts of what they have seen in their loved one’s addiction, as well as statistics regarding substance use disorders and treatment.

Types of Interventions

Types of Interventions

With preparation and approach out of the way, the last thing to consider is what type of intervention to perform. There are a few different models of interventions that have been developed and practiced over the years, with various advantages and disadvantages to staging.

Classical Intervention

A classical intervention involves the most typical arrangement of individuals and relationships – a concerned intervention party consisting of family and friends, the person struggling with addiction, and potentially an additional intervention professional who is there to help with the planning meetings and facilitate the actual occasion.

The few trusted close friends and family members involved may participate in one or more planning meetings and/or a rehearsal intervention in advance, to prepare for the possible different outcomes. The focus of the classical intervention is articulating how the addicted person’s actions affect the various intervention team members’ lives.

Simple Intervention

Not all interventions require a large group intervention party or extensive structuring – sometimes the intervening party is just one trusted other. In a simple intervention, one concerned individual plans a private, face-to-face conversation with the person who needs to get treatment.

This discussion can be more or less structured but still needs to address the question of concerns, facts, plans, and consequences. Despite their simplicity, they still require a great deal of planning, and it’s still best practice for the intervention party to seek support from a professional interventionist beforehand.

Simple interventions are less likely to feel threatening than larger group engagement and can be more effective in cases of young people or more recent instances of drug or alcohol abuse.


The Albany-Rochester Interventional Sequence for Engagement (ARISE) is a model developed by the Association of Intervention Specialists. Unlike the other methods detailed, ARISE encourages the person with a substance use disorder to get involved in the planning stages of the intervention.

  • Level 1: One member of the intervention party contacts a certified intervention specialist. The intervention specialist organizes the first planning meeting of the group, and the person struggling with addiction is both informed of this and invited to participate.
  • Level 2: The intervention meeting (or meetings – ARISE allows for a potential series of mediated meetings where the individual is encouraged to access treatment) occurs.
  • Level 3: If entering a treatment program continues to be refused, the individual is presented with a last-resort meeting where significant consequences for this choice are made clear.

Family System Intervention

Family members are not just affected by addiction, they also can act in ways that contribute to it with codependent, enabling, or other harmful behaviors. Even more, like many mental health issues, addiction tends to run in families, and disentangling the complex patterns of taught and inherited actions, reactions, and modes of relating that contribute toward the passing on of substance use disorders is sometimes needed when staging an intervention.

In family system intervention, the recovery goals are the same, but the difference is that they are applied to the family as a unit. The objective is often to get multiple members of the group into both addiction and family therapy, and to do so in a way that is mindful of the interdependence, hurt, and love that is built into this kind of structure.

Needless to say, it is not wise to attempt a family system intervention without the support of a professional interventionist. If more than one person is struggling and speaking about addiction treatment is likely to trigger defensiveness in multiple parties, third-party mediation, caution, and specialist models can make or break the attempt.

Crisis Intervention

The chaos and harm associated with addiction build and snowball the longer we stay out of treatment – and of course, this can eventually lead to significant life breakdown. Sometimes we don’t realize the need to stage an intervention until the addicted person reaches rock bottom.

Crisis intervention is an urgent, time-specific action that follows a serious, dangerous situation or another deep shock to the system of the individual struggling. Overdoses and physical accidents are common instigating events for crisis interventions and frightening wake-up calls that drive everyone to act fast.

Typically crisis interventions are not planned far in advance, if at all, and sometimes do not have the benefit of an intervention specialist. A crisis can be life-threatening and irreparable, and this model should not be the first or second line of defense.

After an Intervention

After an Intervention

After successfully staging an intervention to help a loved one enroll at a treatment center, there is often still more work to be done. As we’ve mentioned, friends’ and family’s mental health both affects and is affected by alcohol and drug abuse in their loved ones.

Once the person we care about is in treatment, there is often more mental energy available to reflect on what changes we can make to offer support to their recovery process long-term. Thinking about ourselves in this way is difficult, but professional treatment advice is clear when people support the journey of their friend or family member throughout and after their treatment plan, they are far more likely to sustain sobriety.

Practically speaking, it is a good idea to rest after an intervention. But when you’re ready, look into family engagement options at your loved one’s addiction treatment center, especially family therapy sessions or alumni family support groups.

Intervention with Feinberg

We believe that “interventions are a process, not an event” – when we intervene we are trying to create an alternative path to the existing road to harm that the individual is traversing. Extricating one’s behaviors and thinking about drug addiction from the self-destructive ones that contribute to use, and transitioning to acceptance and commitment to treatment often has stages, and can be collaborative.

At the same time, we know that navigating these conversations takes delicacy. Our compassionate staff is here to coach families and friends through the process from start to finish, balancing everyone’s needs where our common grounds lie. If you want to get started in staging an intervention or to speak to a specialist today, contact us at 877-538-5425.

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