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Guide to Drug Interventions

A substance use disorder intervention or a drug intervention is an organized approach by family members and close friends of someone who is suspected to have some type of addiction issue. The goal of the intervention is to convince the person to get treatment for their problem.

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Interventions are often represented in the media as confrontational, essentially an attempt to force the person to seek treatment. This confrontational approach may not be productive.

A successful intervention should be well planned, and it should only include people who are very close to the subject of the intervention. It should be run by someone who has experience in this type of approach, such as a trained interventionist or a professional mental health clinician like a therapist or an addiction medicine physician.

Although there are many different formats that can be used in a drug intervention, the most effective interventions are basic and to the point. The team should present realistic options for treatment and consequences if the person does not agree to enter treatment immediately.

Who Should Be Part of the Intervention?

An intervention can be performed by just one person, but it is often more effective to have several people involved.

Only people who know the subject of the intervention well and who are directly affected by that person’s substance use should be part of the intervention team. Most often, this will include family members, close friends, and others who have a close personal relationship with the person, such as coworkers or supervisors.

It is generally not advisable to include children or individuals under the age of 16, although in very rare cases, it might be helpful. Even though the intervention should not be coercive and confrontational, things can get rather intense. Children and adolescents can be deeply affected by such an experience.

The number of individuals on the intervention team can vary. Typically, it should not include more than 10 to 12 individuals. Often, 3 to 9 team members is ideal.

Seek Professional Help

When people want to organize an intervention for someone with a substance abuse problem, they often have a subjective goal in mind, and their understanding of the situation is very one-sided. This typically involves how the person’s substance abuse is affecting them. They don’t often understand why the person continues to abuse drugs or alcohol when it is obvious that the behavior is self-destructive.

Many prospective team members do not understand the art of negotiation, particularly negotiating with someone who is invested in abusing drugs or alcohol. This can lead to the intervention failing or not even being performed at all. Research suggests that most planned interventions are never actually performed.

During an intervention, emotions run high. If you are close to the subject of the intervention, it’s likely that you may lose your focus if things get heated. You need a leader to keep the event on track. Since an outside professional does not have the same stakes as the other team members, this person can be vital to keeping things focused on the overall goal. This means a higher likelihood that the event will be a success.

In many instances, the best approach is to seek professional assistance. This can be in the form of a professional interventionist (someone who is certified in performing interventions) or a licensed mental health professional, such as an addiction medicine physician or therapist who specializes in addictive behavior. In most cases a professional interventionist will be your best bet.

If you go this route, the professional will take the lead and guide you through the planning process. Although there is a cost associated with this service, it is generally well worth the investment.

The Association of Interventionist Specialists hosts listings of professional interventionists. You can also consult prospective treatment programs and ask for recommendations.

Is an Intervention Needed?

Maybe you know your loved one has been abusing drugs or drinking too much, but you wonder if it actually warrants a full intervention. Oftentimes, you can start with a simple one-on-one conversation with your loved one. If this conversation is not productive, staging an intervention may be appropriate.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offer some suggestions that can guide you to determine if an intervention is warranted in your situation:

  • The person neglects major obligations, including at their job, at school, for their children, or in other important areas of life, due to their substance abuse.
  • Substance abuse is severely affecting their relationships with others.
  • The person continues to use their drug of choice even though it is affecting their physical or emotional health.
  • The person isolates from others due to their substance abuse.
  • The person spends a significant amount of money or time using drugs or alcohol, trying to get the substances, or recovering from bouts of use.
  • The person has experienced a series of financial problems, legal issues, or other ramifications of drug abuse and continues to abuse substances.
  • The person has been formally diagnosed with a substance use disorder, but they continue to use drugs or alcohol.

In these cases, an intervention is warranted.

Putting Together the Intervention

Interventions require meticulous planning and practice. We’ve outlined the general parts of an intervention below.

The specific format of the intervention you stage for a loved one will depend on the particular situation. Ideally, a professional interventionist will help you nail down the details.

  • Choose one person as the group leader or mediator. Again, this is preferably a professional, such as an interventionist, therapist, or other clinician. If you aren’t using a professional, the leader could be an important family member or friend of the person with the substance use disorder. This person organizes and runs the intervention.
  • Choose the members of the intervention team.
  • Before the first meeting, have everyone on the team list how the person’s substance abuse affects them. Everyone should write a one-page letter to the person with the substance abuse issue, explaining how that person’s behavior affects them. Limit the letter to 1 to 1.5 pages. A clear and concise message is best.
  • Get together with the leader and the members of the team to plan and organize the intervention. Make sure everyone understands why the intervention is going to be performed. Only people who are part of the intervention should be at the initial meeting.
  • Make sure that the subject of the intervention is not informed that an intervention will take place.
  • At the initial meeting, discuss the general format of the intervention and what is expected of the team. Decide the order in which people will speak.
  • Have everyone read their letter out loud. The letter should only contain factual information of how the person substance abuse affects the reader of the letter. At the end of the letter, the person should list at least one consequence of not getting the treatment. The consequences should be substantial enough to motivate the person to get help.Letters may be revised based on feedback from the group.
  • Set a specific time, place, and date for the intervention.
  • Identify at least three treatment options that are available for the person following the intervention. The facilities should be contacted ahead of time to ensure the person can immediately proceed into treatment.
  • Establish two members of the team that can escort the person to treatment if they agree to get help. Oftentimes, the professional interventionist will do this.
  • Be ready to support the person once they enter treatment. Involvement does not end with the intervention.
  • If the person does not agree to treatment after all the letters have been read, initiate the consequences that were outlined.

What Not to Do

Avoid these things during an intervention:

  • Do not pass judgment on the person, blame them, or accuse them of anything. Addiction is a disease. It is not their choice to keep abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Do not perform an intervention when the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The best time to stage an intervention is when the person is recovering from their use of alcohol or drugs. If they have a hangover, it may be a good time.
  • Do not engage in name-calling. Stay away from negative terms like junkie, addict, or alcoholic.
  • Do not consider the intervention a final option. If the person does not go into treatment, another intervention can be performed later.It’s common for multiple interventions to be needed before a person finally agrees to get help. Each intervention is a stepping stone on the ultimate journey toward sustained recovery.

The Importance of Ongoing Support

If your loved one agreed to enter treatment, you likely feel a huge sense of relief. But your involvement is crucial, particularly during the early stages of your loved one’s recovery.

Inquire with the treatment center about the level of involvement that is allowed. Some centers restrict visitors in the first few days or weeks of treatment. Others encourage family involvement from the start.

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