Interventions are one of the most widely known aspects of addiction treatment. Movies and TV shows portray them as dramatic events where friends and family members set up an ambush for a loved one. However, the often depicted version of an intervention is just one approach to this critical point in the addiction treatment process. 

Not everyone who needs addiction treatment needs an intervention. Some people realize they need help and seek it out on their own. In other cases, a one-on-one conversation with a loved one is enough to motivate someone to seek treatment. A court order can also initiate treatment. However, in cases where an intervention is necessary, they can be an important catalyst in spurring a person to get help before it’s too late.

Learn more about interventions and how they work. 

What is an Intervention?

In the world of healthcare, an intervention is any treatment approach that interrupts a negative pattern in a way that seeks to produce a change. In addiction treatment, the word intervention often refers to confronting a person in active addiction to get them to seek treatment. 

Interventions are pre-planned meetings between a person struggling with addiction and their friends and family members. Usually, friends and family consult with a professional to make a plan to organize the intervention before it happens. 

The goal of an intervention is to confront destructive, addictive behavior, and get a loved one to seek specific help. They should feel that the people who love them are worried about them and willing to help them seek treatment. They should also feel like their loved ones will no longer enable their addiction by shielding them from the consequences of their addiction.

What an Intervention is Not

The popular depiction of an intervention in TV and movies is a meeting that is extremely confrontational and often an ambush. But interventions don’t have to be an ambush. In fact, some interventions may take place at a professional’s office rather than a home. The traditional model that involves surprising an addicted person is called the Johnson Method. It was named after Vernon E. Johnson, who wrote a book called, I’ll Quit Tomorrow. The method was conceived to help people who were on the brink of disaster, with addictions leading to death or other harms. 

Two women discussing mental healthHowever, today’s interventions don’t always involve a confrontational ambush. There are several ways to organize an intervention and get a reluctant person to go. For many people, it’s enough to say, “This is important to us; just hear us out.” While addiction takes over a person’s life and makes maintaining the addiction a top priority, many people struggling with substance use disorders still want to maintain relationships with their friends and family. 

Even if an intervention is a surprise, it doesn’t have to be confrontational or combative. Modern interventions often involve an approach to therapy called motivational interviewing. This approach is client-centered and involves discussing a person’s ambivalence toward treatment. Motivational interviewing seeks to advance a person’s readiness to change. Instead of yelling out demands, family members may share how the person’s addiction has hurt them and how they feel treatment could save their life. 

How Does an Intervention Work?

Interventions can be done in several steps, and they often use the services of an interventionist. It can be a little awkward, introducing a stranger to your family’s most painful issues, but it helps keep the intervention on track. The steps of conducting an intervention may look something like the following:


When someone suggests an intervention, the first step is to form a planning group. This can be where you seek the help of a professional who can help you form your plan. Decide where it will take place and who should be there.

Information Gathering

Together, with your counselor and participants, discuss the scope of your loved one’s substance use problem. Think about what the best outcome of the meeting might be. You may even begin to make arrangements with treatment providers.

Form the Intervention Group

Who will be at the intervention, and what are they going to say? Decide what message you want to send to your loved one. Everyone should be in agreement as to the overall approach and goals. You may take notes on what you might say. Some people write letters ahead of time to read during the intervention. Avoid mixing messages. For instance, if one person wants the addicted person to seek inpatient treatment, and another wants them to stay home, they should come to an agreement ahead of time. 

Decide on an Approach

This is where a professional can offer some insight. The traditional method is to offer a tough love ultimatum. But that may do more harm than good for some people. A motivational interview style can gently offer solutions to problems and help the person overcome their fears and reluctance to get help. Either way, the addicted person should feel like the people they love and respect are worried about them and care about their health and well-being. 

Conduct the Intervention

The traditional method would be to get the addicted person to come to the meeting location without telling them why. Lying could create an atmosphere of distrust, so it might not be the best tactic. You may ask the addicted person to come talk with your group or ask them to come with you to speak to a counselor. In the intervention, members of the group should share what they wanted to say and present a treatment option that’s clear and specific.

Follow Through

If the intervention ends with the person refusing to seek treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean you failed. If you were able to share your concerns, it might start to soften the person’s resolve against treatment. Avoid enabling behavior that helps the person continue in their addiction, and continue to offer them help in seeking treatment. If they agree to go to treatment, follow through on those arrangements immediately. The best course of action would be to get them into treatment within 24 hours of their decision to go. With pre-planning, you may be able to get them into treatment immediately.

Who Should Be Involved in an Intervention?

An intervention may involve professionals with experience dealing with addiction. This can be an interventionist, a person who specializes in the early stages of treatment and motivating clients to accept that they need treatment. It may also involve a therapist, psychologist, social worker, or mental health counselor. The friends and family that attend an intervention should be a few people that are important to the addicted person. People who are loved, respected, or depended on by the addicted person can have an impact on them when they ask them to seek help. 

However, an intervention isn’t a “more-the-merrier” type of event. There are probably people who shouldn’t attend and may do more harm than good. The presence of people that the addicted person doesn’t like or respect may lead to resentment. People who have their own, unaddressed mental health issues or substance use disorders may also derail an intervention. 

Interventions are also planned ahead of time, so each person should think and talk about what they might share with their addicted loved one. If someone isn’t likely to stick to the agreed-upon plan, they may need to sit it out. For instance, if someone is particularly angry at an addicted person and might lash out in a destructive way, they shouldn’t attend. 

People who would like to be involved but can’t or shouldn’t attend can write letters to be read by someone else. 

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